The Best Movies to Buy or Stream This Week: Armageddon Time, Cinnamon, The Manchurian Candidate, and More

Every Tuesday, discriminating viewers are confronted with a flurry of choices: new releases on disc and on demand, vintage and original movies on any number of streaming platforms, catalogue titles making a splash on Blu-ray or 4K. This twice-monthly column sifts through all of those choices to pluck out the movies most worth your time, no matter how you’re watching.

PICK OF THE WEEK: 

The Manchurian Candidate: John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller – both horribly chilling and blackly comic – has lost none of its blunt force in the fifty-plus years since its original release. Frankenheimer fuses an uncomfortably of-the-moment narrative with matter-of-fact surrealism, creating a nightmarish story of red-baiting and nationalist fear that grippingly captures the dread and paranoia of the period. His compositions are still stunning – dig the fun-house mirror effects of the frames with the frames of the hearing scene – and he gets all-time great performances out of his ace cast (particularly Frank Sinatra, whose tough, feverish turn is haunting as hell). It’s a cold, frightening, brilliant film, and KL Studio Classics’ new 4K is a razor-sharp beauty. (Includes audio commentary, outtakes, interviews, and trailer.)

ON AMAZON PRIME:

Armageddon Time: James Gray’s deeply personal coming-of-age drama has the kind of specificity and attentiveness to time and place that are native to autobiography, a desire (an insistence, even) for the details that may not matter to anyone but the author – but to them, they clearly matter very, very deeply. In telling his circa-1980 story of Queens sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), he’s grappling with issues of race, class, family, religion, and liberal guilt. That’s awfully fertile soil for a thoughtful filmmaker like Gray, and if all of his material doesn’t quite add up, the broad ambition and honorable intentions go a very long way

ON TUBI:

Cinnamon: The words “Tubi original” don’t exactly inspire hope and confidence in the minds of most streaming movie-watchers, but this crime thriller with a dash of comedy is a marvelous surprise. Some of writer/director Bryian Keith Montgomery Jr.’s choices are dubious; Damon Wayans is playing this way too broadly, and it just seems like you’re losing a weapon to cast Pam Grier as a mute. But Hailey Kilgore proves herself a no-questions-asked movie star in the title role, Jeremie Harris is absolutely terrifying, and the plot turns are solid. It’s a taut, twisty, crisply executed crime thriller with a welcome nasty streak. 

ON MUBI:

Crimes of the Future: David Cronenberg’s return to the big screen, eight long years after Maps to the Stars, feels like something of a victory lap; he’s recycling the title of one of his earliest films and returning to the themes and visual motifs that made his name. And y’know what, GOOD FOR HIM, he’s earned it. The bulk of the running time here is spent on a slow boil, as he slathers the frame with mood and dread and nightmare imagery, but he never seems to reach for effects or try to shock. Viggo Mortensen remains the platonic ideal of a Cronenberg lead and Léa Seydoux does Crash-style creepy sensuality like it’s second nature, but the standout is Kristen Stewart, whose mannered, weirdo turn as a creepy little bureaucrat is unforgettable. (Also streaming on Hulu.)

ON METROGRAPH AT HOME:

The Task: Leigh Ledare’s provocative documentary is something of a puzzle –  it puts us in the middle of its central scenario without any particular explanation, parachuting in to an event in progress. A group of “participants” and counselors, a cross-section of races, genders, classes and nationalities, are involved in something like an intensive group therapy session, though the aim is unclear; the most we get are vague platitudes like “The task is to examine your actions in the here and now.” But the specifics don’t matter. They’re hashing out common experiences, prejudices, and reactions , working through elemental conflicts within the American experience at this specific moment in our culture. This series of escalations, conflicts, breakdowns, escapes can make for an uncomfortable experience – but a riveting one, as these people say things aloud that are often left unsaid, while seeming to suppress even more upsetting observations.

ON 4K:

Time Bandits: Terry Gilliam’s first big directorial hit has been a Criterion mainstay, released on laserdisc, then DVD, then Blu-ray, and now a glorious 4K. And it’s not hard to share their enthusiasm for this high-spirited romp, in which a lonely little boy befriends a band of time-trotting thieves and takes an appropriately absurd jaunt through history. There’s a wild, wonderfully improvisational spirit to their journey, which includes visits with Ian Holm’s hilariously emo Napoleon, Sean Connery’s good-natured Agamemnon (just listen to the way he says, incredulously, the name “Kevin?”), and an uproariously smug John Cleese as Robin Hood. The latter segment feels like the germ of a Monty Python movie that never happened (Michael Palin, who co-wrote the script, also appears), yet it’s very much a hinge movie, embedded with that Python sensibility but splashed with Gilliam’s signature style, all jaunty angles, foggy wisps, mechanized futures, hand-crafted props, and stunning images; the giant cages suspended above a void of nothingness have stuck with me ever since my initial childhood viewings of the film, back in its HBO-heavy-rotation days. It’s all wildly imaginative and gleefully, delightfully juvenile. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, new and archival interviews, and trailer.) 

The Rules of the Game: This “dramatic fantasy” from the great French director Jean Renoir is another Criterion multi-format fave, one of those pictures that the fresh viewer approaches with the weight of Canonical Great Film on its shoulders—and it lives up to the promise. It’s a story of lives of leisure and privilege (all of them nicely textured, awful and/or sympathetic in their own unique ways) and the poor souls who must serve them, which collide impressively during a hunting weekend on a country estate. Renoir takes them down not by sneering, but by letting them be themselves, and observing their descent into drunken chaos as petty jealousies, simmering resentments, and plain old bloodlust boil over. It’s an incredible highwire act of sparkling wit and brutal insight. (Includes introduction, audio commentary, alternate ending, archival documentaries, and new and archival interviews.)

Ronin: Frankenheimer again, as KL presents a nice 4K career-bookend duo, pairing the early Manchurian with this late-period action/heist picture. It’s mostly remembered for its killer car chases, and rightfully so – they’re white-knuckle set pieces, practically executed with real drivers, real cars, and real danger. But as the years pass, the moments between those action beats are what stick, thanks to the crackling dialogue of scripters J.D. Zeik and David Mamet (writing under the pseudonym Richard Weisz) and its smooth delivery by an A+ international cast, led by Robert De Niro in prime, Heat-style criminal/consummate professional mode. The 4K upgrade is stellar, the extras are voluminous, and the whole thing just plain holds up; it’s the kind of no-nonsense B-movie that was sort of taken for granted in its time, but is increasingly rare (and missed) these days. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, featurettes, alternate ending, and theatrical trailer.)

Creepshow: Screenwriter (and, hilariously, eventual co-star) Stephen King and director George A. Romero teamed up for this affectionate tribute to the EC horror comics of their youth, and using the briefly in-vogue anthology film structure (there are five total stories, plus a prologue and epilogue). They get gloriously game performances from the likes of Hal Holbrook, E.G. Marshall, Leslie Nielsen, Adrienne Barbeau, and Ted Danson, and the filmmakers get the look, feel, and most importantly tone of these things just right. It’s all executed with grisly wit and giddy malevolence, the work of a couple of naughty boys getting away with something. Scream Factory’s new 4K transfer beautifully captures the distinctively slick yet grimy sheen of early-‘80s studio genre pics. (Includes audio commentaries, deleted scenes, new and archival interviews, new and archival featurettes, theatrical trailer, and TV and radio spots.)

Effects: This low-budget horror flick—a Blu-to-4K upgrade from AGFA—was shot in 1978 but never received a proper theatrical release. But since it’s about a snuff film shot on the set of a low-budget horror movie, its sketchy background and offhand sleaziness is a case of form following function; the grunginess of even this well-restored image contributes to the mood. It was shot for chump change by George A. Romero’s regulars, and proof of that old saw about writing what you know, concerning as it does a low-budget horror shoot that goes sideways. It’s a film plugged in to the mechanics and dynamics of an indie set, by people who’ve participated in late-night rap sessions, discussing their favorite movies and scares, or in-depth disagreements about degrees of reality in gore. (They’ve clearly had these arguments before.) Writer/director Dusty Nelson keeps playfully flipping the script, fooling us with what’s a movie and what’s “real,” particularly as horror-movie techniques begin to invade the film-set framework. In other words, they’re diving into the meta-horror territory later explored in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream, with real wit and insight. Nelson yields a bit to conventionality in the climax, but that complaint aside, this is a thoughtful, believable, and unsettling little banger. (Includes audio commentary, Q&A, featurette, and short films.)

Cold Eyes of Fear: Indicator gives the crisp 4K treatment to this efficient 1971 Italian thriller from director Enzo G. Castellari (The Inglorious Bastards—no, the other one). It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, and a good one; the disturbing opening sequence and deliciously unhinged Ennio Morricone score make it seem like a giallo, but Castellari pulls the rug out to reveal something closer to a Wait Until Dark-style, home invasion thriller. It’s all grimy and great in that very particular ‘70s Italian crime film way, but the longer it goes the wilder Castellari gets, and by the end he’s doing things in the montage and camerawork that border on Cubism. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, interviews, and trailer.)  

ON BLU-RAY:

Pasolini 101: The Criterion Collection marks the 101st anniversary of the birth of Pier Paolo Pasolini with this collection of his fascinating early work, which finds him working in a variety of modes before settling on his signature style. Including nine features, spanning from 1961 to 1969, several of them new to Criterion; of those, my personal favorites are Love Meetings, wittily self-aware  documentary in which he surveys average Italians for their opinions on love, sex, and their particulars (he’s probing, challenging, and sometimes even provacative—a preview of the career ahead of him); and The Hawks and the Sparrows, a playful morality tale with splashes of Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, and Waiting for Godot that turns thrillingly serious on a dime. The artistic growth and command of the form contained in the box are sort of astonishing, and while the price tag is steep, it’s worth it. (Includes audio commentaries, short films, documentaries, featurettes, French television appearance, interviews, trailers, and book.) 

The Servant: Also new to the Criterion Collection, this 1963 British (very British) drama was the first of four collaborations between idiosyncratic director Joseph Losey and inimitable screenwriter Harold Pinter. It’s a clash of the classes story, in which a wealthy Londoner (James Fox) hires a manservant (Dick Bogarde), and all goes well until the women in their lives threaten their exceedingly close relationship. It’s the kind of picture where much of the pleasure derives from watching everyone’s good manners and cheery disposition evaporate into a kind of feral psychological desperation (“I RUN THE WHOLE BLOODY PLACE AND WHAT DO I GET OUT OF IT?” asks the title character, hitting rock bottom). Pinter’s occasional tendency for metaphor over drama is a bit of a hindrance, and Losey sometimes loses his tenuous grasp on the events. But the performers are on fire, pulling the picture over the periodic bumps in the road. (Includes archival interviews, featurette, and trailer.) 

Medicine for Melancholy: Barry Jenkins finally joins the Criterion Collection with this glorious edition of his 2008 debut feature. A lovely and low-key hang-out movie, with a vibe somewhere between Before Sunrise and Love Jones, it concerns two Black bohemian San Franciscans (Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Higgins) who decide to spend the day together after a one-night stand. Jenkins was still finding his voice and style, and the low budget, digital video look is closer to mumblecore than Moonlight. But the talent is firmly in place, and the performers’ lived-in chemistry and charisma makes this a quietly affecting charmer. (Includes audio commentaries, featurette, camera test footage, blooper reel, and trailer.)  

Funny Ha Ha: Speaking of mumblecore, this 2002 breakthrough from writer/director/co-star Andrew Bujalski was one of the key pictures in that movement, even though its 16mm photography and the precision of its filmmaker separates it from that minimizing label. Factory 25’s new Blu-ray both honors its influence—it was truly one of the most influential indies of its era—and keeps it fresh and vibrant, with a sharp new restoration that nicely captures the texture and grain of this rough-edged character study with a spiky sensibility and off-the-cuff charm. (Includes interview, “Creature Feature” intro, and experimental title sequence.) 

Prison Girls: There is some confusion over which film holds the dubious title of first adult film in 3-D; 1969’s The Stewardesses was a softcore sex comedy in three dimensions (and a wildly profitable one, among the top 15 movies of ’69, out-grossing The Wild Bunch, Topaz, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, among others). This 1972 entry from Hell Night director Tom DeSimone was advertised as “The First Real Adult Film in 3-D,” but it’s about as soft as Stewardesses, in terms of the practicalities and logistics of these things. (And it rarely makes as much, or as clever, use of the 3D technology.) But it feels dirtier, like an uncut line of ‘70s sleaze, as a group of the titular women con their way into weekend passes that are mostly spent having (frankly, kinda dull) sex. It’s not a great movie, by any means, but it’s a fascinating curio, and offers plenty of chuckles for sexpoloitation connoisseurs. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scene, theatrical trailer, and both BD3D polarized and anaglyphic red/cyan versions.)

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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