"The United States of Leland" (2003)
What It's About: Aspiring writer Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle) is making ends meet by tutoring juvenile delinquent Leland Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling), imprisoned for killing a neighbor boy named Ryan (Michael Welch). As the two grow closer, the teacher becomes enmeshed in the case, beginning to unearth his student's complex and troubled past, and forced to confront his own countless failings as he does so. In time, Pearl discovers in Leland a series of complicated motivations and, ultimately, a boy that is so much more than just a murderer.
Why You Should Stream It: The debut from writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge, this largely unnoticed film is subtle in almost every aspect, from its subtext-heavy narrative and downplayed cinematography to a rhythmic editing pace that melds past with present and draws the viewer in completely. Although quiet, "The United States of Leland" still manages a provocative, powerful tone; the modest acting is particularly significant here, with Gosling evidencing—even in this relatively early role—his penchant for quiet realism and moving sensitivity. An Official Selection at Sundance in 2003, the film features a superb soundtrack from Sunny Day Real Estate frontman Jeremy Enigk and an all-star supporting cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Michelle Williams, Lena Olin, Jena Malone, Michael Pena, Kerry Washington, Martin Donovan, and Sherilyn Fenn.
Where It's Available: Amazon Instant, VUDU
"Shadow of the Vampire" (2000)
What It's About: A fictionalized account of the making of 1922's "Nosferatu," with John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau, the director of that film, and Willem Dafoe as its star, Max Schreck. Running a production as steeped in mystery and tension as its source material (Bram Stoker's "Dracula"), Murnau brings in the unknown Schreck to lead his cast. At first, the actor appears to be a devoted artist completely immersed in his role, never out of makeup or character. However, as the set becomes rife with fatal accidents, accidents which somehow always involve Schreck, the cast and crew begin to suspect that he might be more vampire than human. Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Carey Elwes, and Eddie Izzard co-star.
Why You Should Stream It: A critical and commercial success from E. Elias Merhige that is equal parts homage and innovation. Borrowing its look from silent era pictures, "Shadow of the Vampire" uses intertitles and receding iris shot transitions to recreate the impression of early 20th century filmmaking while also interjecting the modern footage with scenes from Murnau's original film. Conversely, the development of Schreck as a vampire all his own renovates the biopic format and generates a monster movie in its own right. A monster movie peppered with several awesomely campy performances and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, that is. And as if all this weren't reason enough to watch, the chillingly creepy combo of Malkovich and Dafoe (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), spinning this horror-thriller-comedy tale of power struggles and uncertain identity, makes for delightful, spine-tingling fun.
Where It's Available: Amazon Instant
Criterion Hulu Plus Pick
We like Criterion a lot, but what we love is finding hard to find, not-readily-available-on-DVD movies. And so the Criterion hub on Hulu Plus is pretty awesome. Their archive has approximately 225 movies that will eventually come out on the Criterion Collection on DVD, but currently, it's just a rather incredible, early sneak peek treasure trove of what's to come. Each week we single out a film that we think you should see.
"I Married a Witch" (1942)
What It's About: After burning at the Salem stake and having her spirit imprisoned in a tree, the witch Jennifer (Veronica Lake) takes revenge on her Puritan accuser, Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March), by casting a spell that will make him and all his male descendants unlucky in love. The curse proves effective, but when her spirit escapes many years later, Jennifer vows to further torment the current generation of Wooley (March, again). Retribution becomes complicated, however, when she finds herself falling in love with him. Cecil Kellaway, Susan Hayward, and Robert Warwick co-star.
Why You Should Stream It: This week saw Criterion announce their DVD release slate for October, and as it includes "I Married A Witch," perhaps you’d like to get a head start. French director Rene Clair, known for blending the imaginary and the comic in his early silent films, brings much of this talent to the screen here as well. The picture makes the most of its eccentric story, with two charming leads that, despite their contrasting looks and personalities, display an enjoyable chemistry. Moreover, the bevy of whimsical (if dated) special effects and excellent comedic timing make viewing this whimsical fantasy romance a total delight.
Where It's Available: Hulu Plus
Also Available to Stream
Despite not making our top five picks, the following films are certainly still worthy of your movie-loving attention, and are newly available via various streaming services. Links to our reviews are provided where available.
"El Bulli: Cooking in Progress"
"Can't Hardly Wait"
"The Ice Harvest"
"Little White Lies"
"Run Lola Run"
"The We and the I"