25 Great Movies to Stream for Free in Quarantine
Part 1 of the Pandemic Movie Series
Life as we know it has paused, for how long, we do not know. Everyone is on edge. This morning I saw two women physically fighting over a carton of strawberries. Many of us who work in the gig economy or as contract workers, part-time, seasonal, etc etc are terrified as we do not qualify for unemployment, have no sick pay, and have no idea how we are going to pay our rent. I get it, and I'm right there with you.
Those of us who are storytellers need to do it now more than ever--in whatever medium you can do it in. I've been writing about movies for 25 years. So here's what I offer up to lighten the load -- 25 great movies that you can stream right now for free with your Amazon Prime or Netflix account.
Let me say this, I hate list based articles. This is a thoughtfully curated list, fully vetted with explanations for why I chose the films, trivia and fun facts. Most of the films on the list are not easily found on Netflix and Amazon Prime's promotional rotations. They are hidden gems, iconic and classic films you didn't realize were streaming. There is something for everyone, in every genre, for all ages. They are in no particular order. Click the images to go directly to the films.
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments and perhaps turn this list into a viewing club. I will be back with 25 more films in Part 2 of the Pandemic series.
Stay safe and healthy and enjoy!
Disclaimer: At the time of publication, March 20, 2020, all of these films were streaming for free on either Netflix or Amazon Prime. Take note, several of the films are leaving free streaming March 31, 2020, and are marked as such.
1. The Court Jester
Musical, Comedy, Classic, 1955
Director: Melvin Frank,
Starring: Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns,
Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury,
Synopsis: Hawkins, a kind-hearted entertainer, who disguises himself as the legendary king of jesters, Giacomo, infiltrates the court of the evil villain Sir Ravenhurst but when a sorceress hypnotizes him, royal chaos ensues.
The Pitch: This classic movie is comedy gold and is the perfect respite from our over-stimulated, CGI based virtual world. Danny Kaye (White Christmas) leads an all star cast of classic actors including, Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins), a very young Angela Lansbury (Murder She Wrote), Cecil Parker (The Lady Killers) and the great Basil Rathbone who, long before Benedict Cumberbatch made Sherlock Holmes a household name appearing in over 14 films as the character. The most expensive comedy ever made, at the time ($4m), The Court Jester bombed at the box office. But over the years the film became a matinee classic with now famous exchanges: "Get it?" "Got it." "Good!" and "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!" Kaye's Golden Globe nominated performance is chicken soup for the weary soul.
2. Three Days of the Condor
Mystery, Thriller, 1975 Amazon Prime
Director: Sydney Pollack
Starring: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max Von Sydow, Cliff Robertson
Synopsis: A mild mannered CIA researcher paid to read books, returns from lunch to find all of his co-workers assassinated. "Condor" must find out who did this and get in from the cold before the hitmen get him.
The Pitch: Three Days of the Condor is a member of the elite class of great action/drama films produced in the 1970s. Robert Redford, in his prime flexes more than his good looks in this smart spy thriller. The opening sequence will unnerve you in 60 seconds or less after Max Von Sydow creeps into the scene. Swedish actor Max Von Sydow is extraordinary as hitman, Joubert. A methodical and charming killer, every moment he's on screen sends a chill up your spine. It's a somewhat cerebral thriller exploring the many layers of good and bad, through the inner antics of the CIA. Directed by Oscar winning director, Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa), Three Days of the Condor is one of seven films Pollack and Redford did together. The screenplay was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr and David Rayfiel based on the novel by James Grady. Pollack's use of long running sequences down narrow hallows and staircases is effective at rattling you, keeping you on the edge of your seat.All but one of the cast members are Oscar winners; Redford (Ordinary People), Faye Dunaway (Network), Cliff Robertson (Charly), John Houseman (The Paper Chase), Von Sydow was nominated but never won. Sadly Von Sydow died March 8 at 90.
3. Big Night
Comedy, Drama 1996 Amazon Prime
Director: Stanley Tucci and
Starring: Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Ian Holm, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossilini
Synopsis: Two brothers run an Italian restaurant. Business is not going well as a rival Italian restaurant is out-competing them. In a final effort to save the restaurant, the brothers plan to put on an evening of incredible food for singer Louis Prima who they’ve been conned into believing his coming to their restaurant by a rival restaurateur.
The Pitch: This unbelievably charming film is one of my favorites from the 90s. It made stars out of actors Stanley Tucci (who also directed the film) and Tony Shalhoub and has one of the all-time greatest funny fight scenes: Italian brothers and restaurateurs Primo (Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci) have lost all hope for saving their restaurant and blame each other. Screaming at each other in Italian, their verbal fight turns into a hysterical tumble on the beach. Set in New Jersey in the 1950s, there is so much to love about this film. They pulled off an A-level quality production on a very small budget ($4.1m). It has a fabulous ensemble cast with now famous actors you will be happily surprised to see, stunning costume design, production and set design, the music is...well, Louis Prima! And one of the best screenplays of the era which took home the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Drama, History, War, 2015
Director: Justin Kurzel
Starrring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris
Synopsis: Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders his king and takes the throne for himself.
The Pitch: This adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth is powerful and in my opinion, one of the best Shakespeare adaptations. Oscar nominated actor, Michael Fassbender's (12 Years a Slave), is captivating in the title role making it impossible to turn your attention away from the screen. What I particularly love about this film is the combo of Fassbender and Sean Harris who plays MacDuff. Harris has become a popular movie villain of late, starring opposite Tom Cruise as the villainous Solomon Lane in two of the Mission Impossible films. Watching Harris and Fassbender throw down is like watching battle acting. Marion Cotillard is equally enthralling as Lady MacBeth and Paddy Considine (In America), also getting his star on most recently in HBO’s The Outsider, delivers a powerful performance as Banquo. It’s in Shakespearean tongue yet this adaptation is far more accessible and easy to follow. Brilliant battle sequences for those who dig those.
5. No Way Out
Action, Suspense, 1987
Amazon Prime - Leaving 3/31/20
Director: Roger Donaldson
Starrring: Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Will Patton, Sean Young
Synopsis: Navy Lt. Tom Farrell meets a young woman, Susan Atwell and they share a passionate fling. Farrell then finds out that his superior, Defense Secretary David Brice is also romantically involved with Atwell. When the young woman turns up dead, Farrell is put in charge of the murder investigation. He begins to uncover shocking clues about the case, and becomes a suspect as well.
The Pitch: Kevin Costner, fresh off his success playing Elliott Ness in The Untouchables, was on the verge of becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood when No Way Out came out in 1987. It is a fast, exciting, edge-of-your seat thriller with twists and turns that will misdirect you until the very last scene. The film is based on the 1946 novel The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing. It was a modest hit, debuting number two at the box office (Stakeout was number one) and has often been overlooked over the years as it doesn’t frequently pop up on cable or network lineups like other similar movies of the era. Gene Hackman is, as always, the perfect foil as bad-guy Secretary of Defense, David Brice to Costner’s earnest do-the-right-thing Commander Tom Farrell. but the real star of this film is character actor Will Patton (Armageddon, The Postman) who delivers one of his career best performances. Sean Young briefly co-stars and as does model/actress, Iman, veteran character actor George Dzunda (Basic Instinct, Crimson Tide) and former US Senator Fred Thompson in the early days of his successful acting career (The Hunt for Red October, Law and Order). The music is super 80s, don't hate, part of its charm. No Way Out is one of my favorites from the era. It does not disappoint.
6. Train to Busan
Action, Horror, International, 2016
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Starrring: Yoo Gong, Yu-mi Jung, Dong-seok Ma
Synopsis: While a zombie virus breaks out in South Korea, a Dad and his daughter struggle to survive a harrowing journey on the train from Seoul to Busan, the only safe city from the outbreak.
The Pitch: All eyes on South Korean cinema after Parasite made history as the first-ever international film to win a Best Picture Oscar. But South Korea has been producing phenomenal films for years particularly in the horror and action genres. Train to Busan is a perfect example of their mastery of the horror genre and is one of the best zombie films in years. Train to Busan, which debuted at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2016, is the first live-action film for writer/director Sang-Ho Yeon who rose to prominence as an animated feature film director. The movie was a huge box office hit, the highest grossing film of the year locally. It is frantic, gory (in the best way), and thrilling. The story is simple but illustrates how less is more works when told well (e.g. there’s a shark, eating people, gotta kill it.) The train is a perfect vehicle, pushing the story forward literally and metaphorically. We meet characters along the way who we do not want to see die particularly, Lead, Yoo Gong, the father fighting zombies to keep his daughter safe. He was a classically trained actor and model known for playing romantic leads--which is conveniently paradoxical. Fans of the zombie genre rates this amongst the greatest. If you’re not a fan, but you’re game, it is the wildest right on screen.
7. A Little Princess
Family, Based on Books, Drama, 1995
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starrring: Eleanor Bron, Liam Cunningham, Liesel Matthews
Synopsis: When her father, fighting in World War I, goes missing, a young girl is relegated to servitude at a boarding school by a headmistress determined to stifle her self-worth.
The Pitch: Based on the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic children’s book, A Little Princess is one of those kid’s movies that adults will appreciate. The film marks the first feature film directed by 4x Oscar winner, Alfonso Cuarón (The Revenant, Gravity). Cuarón gave up his first offer to direct a feature, Addicted to Love starring Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick, to direct A Little Princess instead. Although it wasn’t a big box office hit, it was critically acclaimed and sent him on his way to being one of the most sought-after and awarded directors of the 21st century. This info is critical to my reason for listing this film as its beauty lies with Cuarón’s genius. He is an incredible storyteller whose respect for the source material shines all the way through the film. This is the first feature film collaboration for Cuarón and 3x Oscar-winning cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity). A Little Princess was nominated for two Oscars including one for Lubezki and for Production and Set Design. The artistry and craftsmanship of this film is what sets it apart from other children’s movies and adaptations. Game of Thrones fans will be happy to catch a glimpse of Sir Davos (Liam Cunningham) as the little princess’s father.
Biography, Comedy, Crime, 2011
Director: Richard Linklater
Starrring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Synopsis: In small-town Texas, an affable mortician strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow, though when she starts to become controlling, he goes to great lengths to separate himself from her grasp.
The Pitch: Bernie is based on the crazy true story of Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede, who was convicted for the murder of Marjorie "Marge" Nugent, a wealthy 80-year-old widow, in Carthage, Texas on November 19, 1996. Jack Black is fantastic in the title role, pushing the limits of his comedy comfort zone. He was nominated for a Golden Globe and frankly could have been nominated for an Oscar. Also great, Shirley MacLaine in the least amount of dialogue she’s ever had on screen and Matthew McConaughey in the midst of his 2.0 phase pumping out indie films with meaty Oscar-worthy roles. The film is produced, written and directed by Richard Linklater well known for the Ethan Hawke starring Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) and his Oscar winning groundbreaker, Boyhood. Linklater, who had previously worked with Black on School of Rock, handpicked him for the the role. Linklater spent an exorbitant amount of time researching the story and had multiple visits with Bernie in jail. The two became friends fact in 2014, Linklater and original prosecutor, Danny Buck (portrayed by McConaughey), led the charge to get Bernie out of jail after new evidence came to light. For a short period of time Bernie lived in a property owned by Linklater in Austin. In 2016 Bernie returned to jail after being sentenced to 99 years. Linklater, a master at character study, examines the question, can the nicest guy in the world commit such a heinous act? The answer and the film will surprise you.
9. Harold and Maude
Biography, Comedy, Crime, 1971
Director: Hal Ashby
Starrring: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Tom Skerritt
Synopsis: Harold is young, rich and obsessed with death. Maude is a lovable a fun-loving 80-year-old eccentric. When the two meet at a funeral and develop a deep bond, they must reconcile their disparate beliefs about the meaning life.
The Pitch: On every critics top movie list, Harold and Maude is a timeless gem. And I'm not just saying that because it's the inspiration for our podcast (The Harold & Maudecast). If you haven’t seen Oscar winner Ruth Gordon (Rosemary’s Baby) in action, this role is the one to see first. Every moment of Gordon on screen will add 10 years to your life. At its core, this is a love story, proving that the heart sees only love not age, or class, or any societal-driven barrier. The film’s director, Hal Ashby is the darling of film students everywhere, having directed some of the most critically acclaimed and iconic films of the 70s, The Last Detail, Coming Home, Shampoo and my personal favorite Being There (see later in list). Written by comedy legend, Collin Higgins, who was responsible for pretty much every hilarious movie from the era, Foul Play, Silver Streak, 9 to 5. Harold and Maude was based on Higgin’s thesis for the UCLA screenwriting MFA program. He sadly died too young at 47 in 1988. In addition to the brilliant script, direction and Gordon’s performance, the film’s songs were composed and performed by Cat Stevens including the wonderful, If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out. There’s something for everyone in this film, hilarity, oddity, romance, drama. Any fan of laughing and smiling needs to put this on their list.
10. Monty Pythons's
Life of Brian
Classic, Comedy, British, 1979
Director: Terry Jones
Starrring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
Synopsis: Born on the original Christmas in the stable next door to Jesus Christ, Brian of Nazareth spends his life being mistaken for a messiah.
The Pitch: Just over 40 years ago when Monty Python’s biblical satire, Life of Brian was set to be released several religious groups protested the film as blasphemies and countries including, Ireland and Norway banned it outright. The controversy over the film may be one of the best case studies for no publicity is bad publicity as it went on to be an unexpected huge box office hit. John Cleese offered to send the protestors a crate of champagne for making him rich. The film almost didn’t happen at all until George Harrison, a friend of the troupe, stepped in to arrange funding after EMI Films withdrew as financier. Collectively written by the entire group, Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Palin and Jones, and directed by Jones, Life of Brian is one of the funniest movies of all time. Ridiculous and silly-- everything we love about Monty Python and more. The end scene (one of the most controversial and hilarious), Brian and a group sing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" while tapping their dangling feet in unison to the beat. The song, written by Eric Idle has become a classic in its own right, a regular sing-a-long at public events and football matches all over the UK. In addition to Life of Brian, Netflix is currently streaming Monty Python and the Holy Grail and their entire Flying Circus television series
Adventure, Drama, Suspense, 2019
Director: Joe Penna
Starrring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir, Tintrinai Thikhasuk
Synopsis: A man stranded in the Arctic after a plane crash must decide whether to remain in the relative safety of his makeshift camp or to embark on a deadly trek through the unknown.
The Pitch: Danish film actor, Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Doctor Strange) proves why he is one of the best actors of his generation in this intense survival story. The film is quiet, slow, and has very minimal dialogue as Mikkelsen spends much of the time alone. Despite the pacing it is not boring at all. In fact, it is captivating thanks to Mikkelsen’s Oscar-worthy performance and Brazillian writer/director Joe Pena’s thoughtful, purposeful direction. Unlike other survival stories where the protagonist does everything wrong, Mikkelsen’s character does everything right, a refreshing change. He is a pilot who clearly has survival training which becomes fascinating in itself--watching a trained survivalist take command yet still ultimately be helpless against the elements. The film was shot in Iceland, home to director of photography, Tómas Örn Tómasson whose stunning cinematography is an essential component to the narrative. Artic premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival at the midnight screening. It received a 10 minute standing ovation and was sold the next morning. Pena was nominated for a Golden Camera award at the festival. Watch this when you're prepared to tune in with no distractions.
12. Some Like it Hot
Comedy, Crime, Romance 1959
Amazon Prime - Leaving 3/31/20
Director: Billy Wilder
Starrring: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe
Synopsis: When two male musicians witness a mob hit, they flee the state in an all-female band disguised as women, but further complications set in.
The Pitch: In the height of the conservative Eisenhower era, making a farce about two musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) dressing up as women to escape from gangsters, starring the most popular sex symbol of the era as singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), was a bold move. Only six time Oscar winning director and writer, Billy Wilder, could pull it off, and pull it off he did. Some Like it Hot, has endured as one of the greatest films of all time and the blueprint for comedies. The story was inspired by an obscure 1951 German film, Fanfaren der Liebe, that was a remake of an even more obscure 1935 French film, Fanfares D’Amour. Co-written with Oscar winning screenwriter, IAL Diamond (The Apartment), the script is peppered with razor sharp witted dialogue, and the best use of double entendres--brainy not cheesy. Wilder felt that in order for the reveal to work, the film needed more of a sense of urgency. Setting the story in the Roaring ‘20s, having the men witness one of the most brutal events in history, the St Valentine’s Day massacre, raised the stakes to life and death perfectly setting up the punchline Jack Lemmon delivers taking off his wig, “I’m a man”. Wilder was a master caster handpicking silent movie stars and actors from the 30s whose careers had been sidelined (Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard see next), something mirrored decades later by Quentin Tarantino (John Travolta in Pulp Fiction). In Some Like it Hot Wilder cast veteran 30s comedian Joe E. Brown, in the career reviving role as Osgood Fielding III. It was Brown who uttered the infamous last line, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” Also cast was iconic movie gangster George Raft (Scarface) as wise guy “Spats” Colombo and Wilder even found a cameo for Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, Key Largo) as mob boss, Johnny Paradise. The big band music is fun as is every moment of this delicious film.
13. Sunset Boulevard
Drama, Crime, 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim
Synopsis: An aging silent film queen refuses to accept that her stardom has ended. She hires a young screenwriter to help set up her movie comeback. The screenwriter believes he can manipulate her, but he soon finds out he is wrong. The screenwriters ambivalence about their relationship and her unwillingness to let go leads to a situation of violence, madness, and death.
The Pitch: Nominated for 11 Oscars, winner of three, Sunset Boulevard is oft considered a masterpiece. In the ultimate art imitating life role, Director Billy Wilder chose aging silent movie star Gloria Swanson to play aging silent movie star, Norma Desmond. Swanson’s memorable performance was nominated for an Oscar. Swanson and fellow nominee Bette Davis (All About Eve) were famously furious for losing the Best Actress Oscar to a comedic performance by Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Wilder penned the Oscar winning script with writers Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. I thought a lot about whether to include this film in the #MeToo era. Though it was meant to mock Hollywood and its intolerance of aging with a the cartoonish portrayal of Desmond, pitiful and grotesque, leaning into her old age (50, really?) as the reason. When in fact her isolation is why she has lost contact with reality. When young writer, Joe Gillis (William Holden) enters her estate it is hard to miss the parallel to Pip’s first visit to Miss Habersham’s in Dicken’s Great Expectations. And the infamous line, “I’m ready for my close up Mr. DeMille,” as Norma descends the staircase in clownish makeup, again emphasizing her age as a character flaw. That said, the film’s significance in cinema history is undeniable and the story, though shackled by the stereotypes of the era, is well worth examining. The movie was adapted into a Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber after Stephen Sondheim abandoned his plans to adapt it. Over its many Broadway runs several stars took on the Desmond role including Glenn Close who won the Tony for her portrayal in 1995.
14. Murder on the Orient Express
Crime, Drama, Mystery,
Book Adaptation, 1974
Director: Sydney Lumet
Starrring: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, David Niven
Synopsis: Having concluded a case, detective Hercule Poirot settles into what he expects will be a relaxing journey home aboard the Orient Express. But when an unpopular billionaire is murdered en route, Poirot takes up the case, and everyone on board the famous train is a suspect.
The Pitch: The 1974 version of This 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic is one of the best. Albert Finney (my personal favorite Poirot) leads one of the all time great ensemble casts, 8 Oscar winners including, Ingrid Bergman, who took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Fantastically creepy and genuinely scary, and far superior to Kenneth Branaugh’s fun but flawed 2017 remake, this is a must-see for mystery fans. The great Sydney Lumet (Network, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict), helms and veteran spy screenwriter Paul Dehn (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Goldfinger) penned the script adapted from Christie's 1933 book. C’est magnifique!
15. The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Amazon Prime - leaving 3/31/20
Director: Stephan Elliott
Starring: Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce
Synopsis: When drag queen Anthony agrees to take his act on the road, he invites fellow cross-dresser Adam and transsexual Bernadette to come along. In their colorful bus, named Priscilla, the three performers travel across the Australian desert performing for enthusiastic crowds and homophobic locals. But when the other two performers learn the truth about why Anthony took the job, it threatens their act and their friendship.
The Pitch: If you’re looking for total escape and never-ending pure raucous fun that will make you wanna dance and sing for the entire 1:44min run-time, look no more you are home! This Australian movie, written and directed by Stephen Elliott, is a tender, witty story dressed up as a wacky, over-the-top musical. The costumes design alone, winner of the Best Costume Design Oscar for Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, is worth the watch alone. Veteran British character actor, Terence Stamp (Superman II) beat out David Bowie, John Cleese, Tim Curry, Tony Curtis and John Hurt for the role of aging drag queen, Bernadette. The performance earned Stamp a Golden Globe nomination. The film also skyrocketed into stardom the careers of co-stars, Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Guy Pearce (The King's Speech, Iron Man 3). Priscilla, the trio’s bus, not a drag queen, is the star of the film, carrying them and their fabulous frocks across the Australian outback. Their journey begins in Sydney before they venture out to the desert--the gorgeous backdrop against the spectacular costumes are some of the greatest visuals in cinema history. Because so much of the film takes place on the road, in a bus too small to fit the crew, many scenes have crew members in the shot, hiding under clothes and other props. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was a surprise box office hit becoming a cult classic in Australia and around the world. It was the basis for the theater adaptation, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which opened in Sydney in 2006 before landing on Broadway. You will get your nostalgia on as you sing along to all the Abba songs and more. Run don’t walk to your couch to watch this heavenly cinematic jewel.
16. Ladies in Lavender
Drama, Romance, British movies, 2004
Director: Charles Dance
Starrring: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Daniel Bruhl
Synopsis: Aging spinster sisters Ursula and Janet discover a young man near death on the beach by their home in a small Cornish fishing village. Taking him in, they discover that he is Andrea, a violinist from Krakow, Poland, who had been swept off an ocean liner on which he was sailing to a fresh start in America.
The Pitch: This sweet film will warm heart and make you a little sad. Don't worry it ultimately leaves you at peace. The film marked the first English-language role for German actor Daniel Brühl (Rush, Captain America: Civil War) and the directorial debut from Game of Thrones alum, Charles Dance (who plays Tywin Lannister). Oscar winners Smith and Dench are lovely, particularly Dench whose moving performance will tear ya up. Dance also wrote the screenplay, adapted from a short story by William J. Locke. It was shot on a shoestring budget in the space of a month at the gorgeous Cornish coast. The story explores aging while single in such a sensitive way yet honest way. Resist the temptation to say, "Ok Boomer", this is a beautiful little film.
Action, Crime, Thriller 1981
Director: Bruce Malmuth, Gary Nelson (uncredited)
Starrring: Sylvester Stallone, Rutger Hauer, Billy Dee Williams, Lindsay Wagner
Synopsis: Conservative street cop Deke DaSilva reluctantly agrees to terminate an international terrorist who has demanded media attention. But DaSilva's "at-home" tactics are very much put to the challenge.
The Pitch: This early 80s suspense thriller starring Sly Stallone is so often overlooked but is one of the best B movies of the era. Stallone is great as DaSilva, a pre-franchised career role. Rutger Hauer, who we sadly lost in 2019, gives one of the greatest villain performances ever rivaled only by his own performance in Blade Runner which came out the year after Nighthawks was released. Nighthawks refers to the men and women street cops of the New York City Crime Unit who patrol the city at nighttime. In costume and style, it feels a lot more like some of the great 70s street movies, Mean Streets, The 7 Ups, The French Connection. Fun fact, Stallone reportedly spent hours running up and down stairwells to prepare for the exciting scene where DaSilva chases Reinhardt (Hauer) through the subway. But in take after take, Hauer outran Stallone. In addition to some incredible chase scenes, the film has one of the coolest stunts when Stallone hangs from a cable-car atop a mountain. The star has said of the stunt that it was one of the most dangerous he’s ever done because it was untested. He was asked to hold a folding knife in hand so if the cable were to snap, and he survived the 230-foot fall into the East River with its ice cold eight-mile an hour current, he could cut himself free from the harness so not to sink. Not sure he would have survived the fall but gee thanks for the knife? The end scene, though yes, hokey, (as is the movie a bit) delivers great justice and will surprise you and make you laugh.
18. Empire Falls
Drama, Book Adaptation, 2005
Directed by: Fred Schepisi
Starring: Paul Newman, Ed Harris, Robin Wright, Phillip Seymour Hoffman,
Helen Hunt, JoAnne Woodward
Synopsis: A decaying New England town is the backdrop for its unique citizens, led by unassuming restaurant manager Miles Roby.
The Pitch: HBO’s Empire Falls, technically a two-part miniseries not a movie, was adapted from Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Filmed in Waterville, Maine, the story follows Miles Roby (Ed Harris), manager of the diner in a once-thriving, small blue-collar town that never recovered from the shut down of its shirt factory. Despite the star power that filled the streets of Waterville for the production including Paul Newman, his wife JoAnne Woodward, Helen Hunt, Aidan Quinn, Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the story was a little too close for comfort. At the time, Waterville, like many other Maine towns, was itself recovering from massive losses of manufacturing jobs. Russo, who adapted the script himself, wrote the novel while living in Waterville and teaching at Colby College. Russo takes the responsibility of sharing Waterville and other similar towns' plight very seriously, resisting cliché portrayals of the working class. Miles Roby (Harris) is an incredibly relatable character haunted by his own childhood memories which are used throughout the series as clues to uncovering a mystery. The film is Paul Newman’s last live action screen appearance and a big reminder of why we all love Newman. Same applies for Harris, who in my view is one of the most unsung actors of his generation. The gorgeous fall foliage and Maine scenery will make you wanna plan your post pandemic trip.
19ic . Hush
Thriller, Horror 2016
Director: Mike Flanagan
Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Kate Siegel, Michael Trucco
Synopsis: A deaf and mute writer who retreated into the woods to live a solitary life must fight for her life in silence when a masked killer appears at her window.
The Pitch: This indie horror film from writer/director Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep, Ouija: Origin of Evil) will scare the pants off of you, literally. I couldn’t sleep for a week after watching it, and that’s my best selling point. It’s one of the smartest slasher films ever made. I hesitate to even call it that because it’s more Hitchcockian in script and tone, unexpectedly terrifying and thrilling. It is reminiscent of another great thriller, the 1967 classic Wait Until Dark starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman terrorized inside her apartment by killer played by Alan Arkin. Flanagan and his wife/writing partner, Katie Siegel, (who also stars in the film as Maddie) wrote an incredibly clever script using the isolation of both Maddie’s deafness and the woods to raise the stakes. The budget was relatively tiny, $1m and they shot it in essentially one location, a house in the woods with only five actors, two of which got all the screen time. The film was released exclusively on Netflix, and thanks to its critical acclaim and success streaming, led to Netflix producing Flanagan's adaptation of Stephen King's Gerald's Game (2017). Flanagan went on to direct another Stephen King story, 2019’s Doctor Sleep, an adaptation of King’s 2013 novel which was a sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining. If you are a fan of horror movies, and make no mistake this is a horror movie, you will love it.
20. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society
British Period Films, 2018
Director: Mike Newell
Starrring: Lily James, Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Courtenay, Michiel Huisman
Synopsis: In the aftermath of World War II, a writer forms an unexpected bond with the residents of Guernsey Island when she decides to write a book about their experiences during the war.
The Pitch: The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society may have popped up on your rotation as it is a Netflix original film based on the New York Time’s best seller. At first glance this looks like a super sweet British period movie, (which may be all you’re looking for), but it’s actually a compelling mystery finding author, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), as de facto detective trying to help a group of residents on Guernsey discover the truth about their missing friend. Director, Mike Newell, (Four Wedding and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), introduces us to the characters on Guernsey in his adept way of blending comedy with intrigue. The film has a great ensemble cast headed by James (Cinderella), Michael Huisman (Daario Naharis from Game of Thrones) and Jessica Brown Findlay (Sybill from Downton Abbey). This is one you could watch repeatedly, and I do.
21. What's Eating Gilbert Grape
Director: Lasse Hallström
Starring: Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio
Synopsis: A young man in a small Midwestern town struggles to care for his mentally-disabled younger brother and morbidly obese mother while attempting to pursue his own happiness.
The Pitch: This film is one of the best yet most undervalued films of the 1990s. Johnny Depp, pre-Jack Sparrow gives one of his career-best performances as Gilbert. His character’s arc is the most significant but his performance is upstaged by Leonardo DiCaprio as Gilbert’s younger brother, Arnie. DiCaprio deservedly received his first Oscar nomination for this role. I had a similar feeling about the 1988 Best Oscar Picture winner, Rainman, where Dustin Hoffman (who won Best Actor for his portrayal of Raymond) upstages Tom Cruise who has a more challenging character arc. That said, DiCaprio is truly phenomenal. Watch it more than once and you will notice something new and brilliant in his performance. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was written by Peter Hodges adapted by his novel of the same name. Director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) is one of the great slice-of-life storytellers. He pushes his characters, challenging them in difficult ways this film, no exception. On the surface Gilbert seems simple but he’s far more interesting than anyone gives him credit for and you can’t help but root for him. John C. Reilly (Step Brothers, Guardians of the Galaxy), who plays Gilbert’s buddy, Tucker Van Dyke, gives one of the all time, understated comic performances. This film will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.
22. Center Stage
Drama, Romance, Dance, 2000
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Starrring: Amanda Schull, Ethan Stiefel, Sascha Radetsky
Synopsis: A group of 12 teenagers from various backgrounds enroll at the American Ballet Academy in New York to make it as ballet dancers and each one deals with the problems and stress of training and getting ahead in the world of dance.
The Pitch: Tony Winners, Susan Stroman’s (The Producers) and Christopher Wheeldon’s (An American in Paris) delightfully fun choreography drives this feel-good movie about a group of dance students at New York’s famed American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Directed by Nicholas Hytner, (Miss Saigon, The Madness of King George) does an excellent job directing multiple storylines with a relatively unknown group of young actors--most of whom were experiencing their first film role. Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy) makes her feature film debut in Center Stage and oh hell yes, she can dance! She performs one of the film’s most exquisite ballet performances. Before becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood Saldana studied at the prestigious ECOS Espacio de Danza Dance Academy where she learned ballet as well as other dance forms. The actress sights Center Stage as her favorite movie to film, particularly a salsa dance scene choreographed by Stroman. One of the story lines features a love triangle between two students and an ABT member/teacher. All three actors were members of prestigious ballet corps. Amanda Schull (Jody), a member of the corps de ballet with the San Francisco Ballet, Ethen Stiefel (Cooper) a Principal with The New York City Ballet and Sascha Radetsky, (Charlie) a member of the corps de ballet with ABT. This is a sweet coming of age story not an intense drama but in it's made-for-TV-movie adjacent way, it examines the systemic problem of body image and eating disorders in the dance world. If the dancing was the only charming thing about this film it would be worth the watch. But it’s also a lovely escape from reality with a predictable yet enjoyable story.
23. Hell or High Water
Western, Crime Drama, 2016
Director: David MacKenzie
Starrring: Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges,
Synopsis: A divorced father who's trying to make a better life for his son and his brother, an ex-convict with a short temper and a loose trigger finger, plan a series of heists against the bank that's about to foreclose on their family ranch. As the siblings plot their final robbery, they must also prepare for a showdown with a crafty Texas Ranger, weeks away from retirement and not ready to ride off into the sunset.
The Pitch: Hell or High Water is one of the best films in the last decade. Nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Screenplay penned by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). Set in modern day West Texas, the film is part character driven slow-paced Western, part high-octane bank heist movie. It is fueled by fantastic dialogue and strong performances by the always memorable Jeff Bridges as retiring Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton and Chris Pine (Wonder Woman) and Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) as the Howard brothers. The chemistry between Pine and Foster is reminiscent of Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the film has a similar feel. Scottish director, David Mackenzie, helmed the film. Mackenzie often works with Pine including on 2018’s Outlaw King about Scottish King, Robert the Bruce. If you somehow missed Hell or High Water when it was released in theaters, don’t miss it now. It is shockingly brilliant and full of surprises.
24. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves
Action, Adventure, Historical, 1991
Directed by: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alan Rickman
Synopsis: Nobleman and crusader Robin of Locksley breaks out of a Jerusalem prison with the help of Moorish fellow prisoner Azeem and travels back home to England. But upon arrival he discovers his dead father in the ruins of his family estate, killed by the vicious sheriff of Nottingham. Robin mist join forces with a band of outlaws from Sherwood Forrest to save the kingdom from the sheriff's villainy.
The Pitch: Nothing beats the Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood! It holds up almost 30 years later because the story is the story. There’s no modernization of Robin Hood, or re-imagining of the plot, it’s straight up Robin Hood and his merry men, stealing from the rich to feed the poor and fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham. And it is delectable. True, Costner’s British accent is ridiculous and fades after the first scene, who cares, he’s a great action star. But the best reason to watch or re-watch this film is Alan Rickman. If you thought his performance as Hans Gruber in Diehard was the best on screen villain, you haven’t seen his Sheriff of Nottingham. Rickman’s evil Sheriff is one of the top 5 bad guy performances ever, maybe Top 3, with also the most spectacular death scene. Rickman is so brilliant in this role you’ll want to re-watch his scenes over and over again. The ensemble cast is solid with Morgan Freeman as Azeem, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Marion and Christian Slater as Will Scarlett. As was the style of the time, there’s some eye-rolling, over-the-top dialogue. When Robin and Azeem catapult over the castle wall Will Scarlett exclaims, “F*ck me he cleared it.” But forgive those minor shortcomings because the action delivers and it is a super fun ride from beginning to end. Don’t run out for that bathroom break too soon cause you’ll miss one of the all time great cameos by Sean Connery as King Richard the Lionheart.
Biography, Drama, History, 2004
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Nathan West, Noah Emmerich
Synopsis: When college coach Herb Brooks is hired to helm the 1980 U.S. men's Olympic hockey team, he brings a unique and brash style to the ice. After assembling a team of hot-headed college all-stars, who are humiliated in an early match, Brooks unites his squad against a common foe, the heavily-favored Soviet team. As the U.S. squad tries to overcome insurmountable odds and win the gold medal, the team becomes a microcosm for American patriotism during the Cold War.
The Pitch: It’s unbelievable but it’s been 40 years since the US Men’s Hockey Team achieved the “Miracle on Ice”, against all odds the amateur Olympians beat the world’s greatest hockey team from the then, still, Soviet Union. It feels right for Miracle to end this list as we could all use a little inspiration right now. The film, based on the story of head coach, Herb Brooks and the young Olympians’ journey to gold, is considered to be one of the most accurate depictions of true events, including dialogue. Despite the Disney label, the film is not schmaltzy. Director Gavin O’ Connor’s (Warrior) decision to cast the young hockey players primarily for their hockey skills, (this was the first major film for most of the actors), was smart as it puts the focus on the hockey and the story--which needs no added sugar. Composer Mark Isham’s (A River Runs Through It) beautiful score punctuates the heroics in all the right places. Russell, whose studied, earnest portrayal of Brooks, steadies any melodramatic tendencies as if he’s also coaching the entire crew toward victory. Russell reportedly took a pay cut so the 1000 extras hired to be hockey fans were able to eat a hot meal vs a bag lunch. Sadly Herb Brooks died during principal photography and never saw the film. A caption at the end of the movie over his picture says, “He didn’t see it, he lived it.” Because a little schmaltz will do us good right now, I will leave this with Al Michael’s famous words spoken seconds before the US Men’s Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union 4-3 in Lake Placid, New York, February 22, 1980, “Do you believe in miracles!?”.
Sarah Mason is Executive Producer of The HMC Network and a contributing writer for The HMC, Creative COW and The Saturday Evening Post.