FilmStruck, the streaming service created by TCM and Criterion, is shutting down on November 29th and the Dames couldn’t be sadder. This week, we attempt to honor FilmStruck and also give you our recommendations on the films you should watch there before it shuts down.
Fear of a Black Hat (1993)
I mentioned this on the podcast but I can’t stress enough my love for this mockumentary. I actually find it funny that Karen and I picked faux documentaries that couldn’t be further apart. In this case, my choice is from director Rusty Cundieff about a fictional hip-hop band navigating the early ’90s. Think of NWA with a cheaper cause celebre. The humor here is as barbed as can be, with Cundieff making some incredibly pointed critiques at every prominent black artist of the ’90s as well as lampooning several prominent events of the period, from the L.A. riots to the scandal over Martha Wash being replaced in the “Everybody Dance Now” music video. There are so many hilarious moments and the music, like This Is Spinal Tap, sounds so specific to the era you’ll believe you’re watching a real band. A cursory look at Amazon shows this isn’t available on DVD so make a point of watching it.
The Breaking Point (1950)
I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t put a thirst pick on here. It just helps that the movie is also really well-done. The Breaking Point is a 1950 noir from director Michael Curtiz. It also stars my deceased lover, John Garfield, but that’s beside the point. In this case, Garfield plays Harry Morgan, a moral fisherman who, strapped for cash, ends up having to do something illegal. The film is meant to be a remake of To Have and Have Not (1942), but one that hews a bit closer to Hemingway’s original novel. The movie is wonderfully directed by Curtiz and Garfield is so fantastic. This movie also makes no bones about the fact that his wife and him are into each other and for 1950….that’s saucy!
I know Lauren makes fun of me for waiting till this year to see Mulholland Drive (2001), but considering my first Lynch film was Eraserhead….you can see why I waited awhile to dive back into that pool. Eraserhead is about a couple who have a baby….I think. The movie is about seven shades of fucked up with images I still haven’t been able to get out of my head. I consider it a horror movie, but i’m honestly not sure what genre it’s supposed to be. Just experience it once. It’s a rite of film passage.
I Married a Witch (1942)
This was one of my most sought after DVDs for years. Criterion owned the rights but up until a few years ago you could only watch it on the Criterion Channel via Hulu. Now it’s officially out on Blu but many will (and should) experience it on FilmStruck. I Married a Witch is the movie that proved to me Veronica Lake was an unsung comedienne. She stars as Jennifer, a vengeful witch from the 1700s who curses all the men in the Wooley family (all the men are played by Fredric March). The latest man in the chain is running for Senator and Jennifer, now free from the tree she’s been imprisoned in, is ready to make his life hell. But a love spell ends up causing her to fall for him. It’s said this movie was the inspiration for Bewitched – though the creators of the show swear that’s not true….right. I hate Fredric March, so I’m all for watching Veronica Lake torment him for 90 minutes. It’s sweet, swoony, and director Rene Clair knows how to make fantasy films!
The Passionate Friends (1949)
I guess Paul Thomas Anderson cited this as an inspiration for Phantom Thread and many will read that sentence and immediately jump on it. For me, I watched this because it was a David Lean film under three hours. (I can feel you judging me already.) This is an excellent tale of jealousy and relationships where the woman isn’t a horrible human being! In fact, the way Lean composes things, everyone is flawed equally in this romantic triangle. Mary (Ann Todd) is in love with Steven (Trevor Howard) for several years. But the two never marry and eventually separate. Mary ends up marrying the older Howard (Claude Rains), but when Steven re-enters Mary’s life it causes old anxieties to flare up. Lean’s camera says so much and it’s a testament to how great auteurs of the past didn’t need to rely on expository dialogue to convey a point. You feel for all three characters and hope someone will just explain things rather than let the situation get out of hand. It’s a beautiful story of love deferred and how individual fears can ruin things. It’s also not available on home video.
I’m the reason FilmStruck is going away. I have it. I paid for it. I loved it. But I never have time to really devote to it the way I want. I had Grand Plans to get caught up over Christmas break, and, well, that’s all shot to hell now. But here are some really wonderful films on FilmStruck. Some I had seen before, others were new to me. All are great.
A Mighty Wind (2003)
I know, it feels like this list should be comprised entirely of films from pre-1970, but dammit I love this movie, and I’m really glad it’s on FilmStruck, because that means those brilliant and lovely curators understand just what a gem Christopher Guest gave us. In his signature mockumentary style, this homage/parody/gentle mocking of the world of folk music is every bit as hilarious as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, but in subtler ways. It’s true that most of Guest’s films include jokes you don’t catch until the third, fourth, fifth viewing, but that is especially true of A Mighty Wind. And it really does get funnier every single time.
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)
We Americans really love making movies about World War II, but we rarely watch films about the era from any perspective but our own. Louis Malle’s film tells the story of boys living at a boarding school in Nazi occupied France. A new student enrolls at the school and becomes very close friends with his roommate and some of the others, but the new boy is Jewish and in hiding from Nazis. It’s a beautiful story of friendship and a gut-wrenching tale about the horrific reality of the time period. I first watched it in high school and have never forgotten it.
Seven Beauties (1975)
Lena Wertmüller was the first woman ever nominated for an Academy Award for directing. She wasn’t the first woman who deserved it, but she paved the way for the next nominee to come along…17 years later. Since her nomination, the story has become about her, while most people never actually see the film that landed her the Oscar. Seven Beauties is a film you should definitely watch. Wertmüller’s filmography is rarely available anywhere, so this is a huge treat. Go. Right now.
Singin’ in the Rain (1951)
Whether you’ve seen this a hundred times or have never watched, do yourself a favor and go enjoy two hours of pure joy and happiness. Debbie Reynolds is pure delight, but Gene Kelly will charm your socks off.
Strange Brew (1983)
I had like eighteen other films I was trying to choose from, but I kept coming back to Bob and Doug McKenzie and their quest for the last case of Elsinore Beer. It’s one of those hilarious cult classics you can’t really jump into by yourself. If you haven’t seen it, you need to watch with someone who is already a fan. Probably. But it was not available for streaming for the longest time and watching this will make you realize how much you’ve missed Rick Moranis all these years.
Alfred Hitchcock’s films are everywhere, but for the most part the focus is on the big ones – Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, and so forth. And rightfully so – those are brilliant films, and they deserve attention. But Hitchcock cut his directorial teeth on a variety of genres, starting in the silent era, and many of those films are great on their own merits. FilmStruck doesn’t have all the early Hitchcocks, but they have enough, including Downhill, an intense melodrama starring Ivor Novello and released the same year as The Lodger.
Downhill follows a young man who takes the rap for a friend, resulting in his expulsion from school and home. That one selfless act transforms his life, sending him “downhill,” in an extended examination of social morality and the intersection of life and fiction, among other things. While not as stylized as The Lodger, Downhill deals with some interesting issues and gives space for Hitchcock to play around with notions of pure cinema. One nightmare sequence owes a heavy debt to German Expressionism, and is a precursor to the development of the style most clearly showcased in The Lodger and later films. Really worth the time.
The Ocean Waif (1916)
FilmStruck has a whole group of films directed by women, and there are many underseen gems among them. But I’m going to take a minute to stan for Alice Guy-Blache, one of the greatest directors I’d never heard of. The Ocean Waif is not a complete film, unfortunately, and so has to be supplemented by title cards and surviving frames to explain some of the progress of the story. But what is left is a fascinating little melodrama and a surviving testament to the presence of brilliant women both behind and in front of the camera.
All Through The Night (1942)
Humphrey Bogart in his prime? Check. Clever tough guy quips coming from the mouths of a bevy of great character actors? Check. Red-blooded Americans punching Nazis in the face? Checkmate. All Through The Night is a sort-of riff on the tough-guy stories of Bogie’s past, this time filtered through some excellent comedy and wordplay that pits the denizens of the New York underworld against fascists trying to undermine America from within. Equal parts Guys and Dolls and Casablanca, the film also features Peter Lorre as a sinister piano player and Conrad Veidt giving a scenery-consuming performance as the main baddie, with Judith Anderson and her evil dachshunds as his acolytes. It’s also a good reminder of how much good Americans hate fascists.
I want to pay tribute to the first film I put on my FilmStruck queue, a film I only just got around to watching. Onibaba is a deeply disturbing film about poverty, sexuality, sin, murder, and why you shouldn’t go around putting on demon masks. A supernatural horror story about a mother and daughter-in-law eking out an existence in war-torn Japan by murdering and stealing from lost samurai, Onibaba is more than just its plot – the visual and aural construction of the film makes it spookier than its events, creating a sense of impending and inevitable doom. The one good thing to come out of FilmStruck going away is that it has pushed me to watch more of the films I’ve put off seeing.
All Night Long (1963)
Basil Dearden is so often forgotten in lists of the all-time greats, but he made some of the most ground-breaking films of Britain’s post-war period: Victim deals with anti-homosexuality laws and the damage they do to the whole society, Sapphire with racism and stereotyping. All Night Long combines a killer jazz score with Othello to tell a remarkable story about psychotic racism and sexism. Just casting a black man and white woman as a contemporary married couple was pretty amazing in 1963, but the rewriting of Othello, turning Othello into a jazz band leader and Iago into a jealous drummer played by Patrick McGoohan means that Dearden gets to unpack the racism of his culture while also constructing one hell of a hallucinatory psychodrama.
I was a late comer to FilmStruck. I’ll admit it. I checked it out a while back, but it wasn’t until the TCM partnership that I truly fell in love with the streaming service. Yeah, it had all the movies I watched in an untold number of film school classes (all worthwhile viewing), but it was their shift towards an increased volume of classic Hollywood films that truly sealed my undying love.
I’ve been familiar with Jean Harlow’s name for years. Her reputation and legacy speak for themselves. However, her films were always a bit of a struggle to find. They were, at least, until FilmStruck dropped each of the actress’ main works earlier this year as part of a collection. I absolutely fell in love with Bombshell as soon as I saw it. It is a fun and pleasantly self-reflexive take on Hollywood, casting Harlow in a role not unlike her “Blonde Bombshell” persona. She partners incredibly well with the sadly under-remembered Lee Tracy and an utterly adorable Franchot Tone. The movie is a great entry point for anyone and everyone looking for an entry into Jean Harlow’s filmography.
Singing in the Rain (1952)
Singing in the Rain serves as my entreé to the world of classic cinema. While I’d watched plenty of pre-1970 movies before I saw the classic musical, it was this movie which truly opened my eyes to my love of film history. Suddenly, I was diving into Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Arthur Freed… the list goes on and on. This was the movie which made me want to become a film historian. There aren’t enough complimentary adjectives to describe how I feel about this movie. See it if you haven’t.
The Prize (1963)
A bit of deep cut here. The Prize is a nostalgic favorite in the Pierce household thanks to Papa Pierce..yeah, Elke Sommer. The movie follows Andrew Craig (Paul Newman) a novelist in Stockholm to accept a Nobel Prize. Suddenly he’s engulfed in all kinds of international intrigue which only Paul Newman could tackle with a smile and an adorable swagger. This movie is actually quite a rarity. While my family owned this movie for years on VHS, I have never actually found it available on DVD. While there are fewer and fewer movies in this boat, it still happens. However, FilmStruck put it out there for everyone to see. This is why we need to keep FilmStruck, dangit.
The Time Machine (1960)
Okay….my love for this movie isn’t as deep and scholarly as the earlier entries on this list. My feelings can be summed up like this: Rod Taylor and Alan Young in all their accented glory putting on period clothes. I know Rod Taylor doesn’t use his actual accent, but I can still pretend.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
I first watched this movie when I was incredibly young, and probably too young to understand all the eccentricities. Arsenic and Old Lace is so delightfully quirky. It truly surprises me that it seems to have slipped through the cracks in Cary Grant’s rock solid filmography. It’s a delightful horror comedy that I think more people should see and FilmStruck let us do that!!!
I’m not bitter…