The Best Movies to Buy or Stream This Week: Past Lives, Elemental, Moonage Daydream 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.


Past Lives: Celine Song’s feature debut tells a simple story, of two people who knew each other when they were children, reconnected in college and fell into something like love, and have now met again, when one of them is married. The particular majesty of this very modest film is how it tells a story that’s strikingly specific in its particulars, but it tells that story so insightfully and personally that it becomes universal. Not all of us have been that girl, or that guy, or the other one. But we’ve all loved someone when it was too late, or questioned the choices we’ve made, or wondered what our lives would be like if we’d done this one little thing differently. And it’s that universality — along with the sensitivity of the performances and offhand ease of the dialogue — that makes it such an overwhelmingly, devastatingly emotional experience. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, and featurette.)


Elemental: The latest from Disney/Pixar can feel, in spots, like something of a medley of their greatest hits; Zootopia is particularly well-represented, but there are dashes of Inside Out and Coco, among others. But the character designs are inventive, the dialogue is clever (though some of the puns are pretty dire), and the set pieces are well-executed (especially the big flood at the climax). Most importantly, if the specifics are familiar, there’s an overall movement into new territory, as the central relationship has elements of romantic comedy that feel fresh and unexpected. It’s not one of the great Pixar pictures, but it’ll do. (Also streaming on Disney+.) (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, and “Carl’s Date” short.) 

What Doesn’t Float: It’s not exactly innovative, at this point, to make an ensemble comedy/drama about a group of casually connected fringe dwellers trying to make their way through the mess of contemporary New York City — it’s practically become a subgenre. But familiarity doesn’t have to breed contempt, and there’s a lot to like about director Luca Balser’s dark comedy, from the eclectic cast (including such NYC indie standbys as Larry Fessenden and Keith Poulson) to the crisp digital photography (by the similarly prolific Hunter Zimny and Sean Price Williams) to the breezy running time (an unimposing 69 minutes, nice.) (Includes audio commentary and score.)

ON 4K:

The Trial: One of the last of Orson Welles’s features to fight its way out from the gutter of low-quality public domain bargain bins into a first-class HD presentation, this Criterion edition of the master’s 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel is a feverish mixture of literary adaptation, paranoid thriller, and neo-German expressionism. Welles is a ideal interpreter of Kafka’s work, tightly integrating and navigating his turns to dark humor, surrealism, and nihilism, while Anthony Perkins’s performance as the persecuted Josef K. feels especially vulnerable in light of what we now know about the secrets he was forced to keep. (Includes audio commentary, archival interviews, trailer, and the feature-length, Welles-directed documentary Filming ‘The Trial.’)

Moonage Daydream: This fiercely energetic David Bowie bio-doc (new to the Criterion Collection) is the work of Brett Morgan, one of the few pop culture documentarians who is trying to expand and experiment with the form. By his own admission, Bowie “spent a lot of my life actually looking for myself”; it wasn’t a life that moved in a straight line, so an account of it shouldn’t either. There’s biographical information, sure, and some sense of chronology, but it’s unpacked thematically, in musical and cinematic movements, via scorching concert footage, documentary odds and ends, archival interviews, stock footage, clips from his films, experimental videos, and more. Morgan juxtaposes and manipulates the images in unexpected ways, and does similar magic with the music; Criterion’s 4K disc looks great but sounds spectacular, making these timeless songs sound new all over again. (Also streaming on Max.) (Includes audio commentary, Q&A, interviews, previously unreleased Bowie footage, and trailer.)

Fall: Our own Bill Bria calls them “single-issue thrillers,” and describes them thus: “a couple of characters encounter A Big Problem, and then over the course of one or two hours (but not more than that), struggle to find a way to solve, escape, or survive it.” The single-issue thriller has fallen rather out of favor these days, thanks to the multi-media, “universe”-spanning tentpoles that studios increasingly hang their hats on, but last summer yielded a handful of sturdy, solid examples, and the best of the bunch was this killer thriller from director Scott Mann, now hitting Best Buy in an exclusive 4K steelbook edition. It’s a gripping piece of work (often literally), as two thrill-seeking best friends (Grace Caroline Currey and Virginia Gardner) climb a 2,000 foot radio tower and end up stuck at its top with no clear escape in sight. If you’re afraid of heights (hello!) proceed with caution, but this is a taut little nail-biter, and its leads have charisma to burn. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, music video, and trailer.) 

The Exorcist: The recently-departed William Friedkin’s 1973 horror smash is the latest Warner Bros classic to get the 4K treatment as part of their 100th anniversary series, but those who follow Friedkin’s work know that his home video releases can be a dicey proposition; save George Lucas, there are few filmmakers who like to tinker with their work more (with similarly diminishing returns). But, some minor color timing issues aside, he hasn’t monkeyed with this one much, and certainly not in a manner that the casual viewer might note — unlike, say, The French Connection. (That new cover art, though, P.U.) As for the movie itself, well, there’s a reason it’s still considered by many to be the definitive horror movie, more than 40 years after its release: a combination of terrifyingly convincing special effects, harrowing set pieces, and well defined characters that ground the whole thing in a relatable reality. (Includes original theatrical version and extended director’s cut, both in 4K, plus audio commentaries and introduction.) 

The Train: Between 1962 and 1966, John Frankenheimer directed Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Train, and Seconds, a run of first-rate movies that some of our best filmmakers haven’t matched. This is one of the less-discussed of that bunch, but it’s no less impressive, a blistering WWII heist picture in which Burt Lancaster leads a team to stop a German colonel (Paul Scofield) from transporting a priceless cache of stolen artworks. Frankenheimer executes the breathless action and taut suspense with aplomb, and Lancaster (though suspiciously accent-less) is rock-solid in the leading role. (Includes audio commentary, isolated score, featurette, TV spot, and trailers.)

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: The directorial debut of Michael Cimino (who would go on to rise with The Deer Hunter and fall with Heaven’s Gate), this is a freewheeling opposites-attract buddy picture, pairing Jeff Bridges (young, talkative, hyper) with Clint Eastwood (old [already], taciturn, laid-back) as a pair of run-and-gun criminals. The first half is the best, with their attraction for each other playing as barely-concealed subtext, placing the picture in the grand tradition of lovers-on-the-run movies. It’s less fun in the back half, when it moves into more standard heist movie territory, though that stuff is enjoyable as well. KL Studio Classics’ new 4K transfer does right by the striking landscapes and dusty country roads — and by Bridges, who was rarely more beautiful. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, trailer, and radio and TV spots.)

Natural Born Killers: Quentin Tarantino followed up his True Romance screenplay with another lovers-on-the-run flick, this one more deliberately over-the-top and satirical—qualities cranked up to 11 by eventual director Oliver Stone, whose rewrite (Tarantino ultimately took only a story credit) made affectionate serial killers Mickey and Mallory Knox into an avatar for ‘90s-era monsters-as-celebrities. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis have rarely been better, leaning into their hillbilly accents and pure blood lust (and, for each other, just plain lust), while Tommy Lee Jones has never been more cartoony, and yes, that includes Batman Forever; Shout Factory’s new 4K disc gives Robert Richardson’s distinctive, multi-media cinematography its full range of richness and depth. It’s not a subtle picture (unsurprising, considering its director), but it is a bluntly effective one, tossing the narrative and visual bookmarks of the sub-genre into a multimedia blender and slamming down the puree button. (Includes director’s and theatrical cut, audio commentary, introduction, new interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes, alternate ending, and trailer.) 

Halloween H20: When the David Gordon Green-helmed reboot-quel of Halloween came out in 2018, it was tempting to look back and dismiss Jamie Lee Curtis’s twenty-years-earlier attempt to reappropriate the character (and, in doing so, her scream queen past). But now that Green’s two follow-ups have absolutely sucked on toast, let us praise the small pleasures of H20: Steve Miner’s atmospheric direction, the fresh-faced cast (including early turns by Michelle Williams, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Josh Hartnett), the slender running time (86 minutes baby!), the winking cameo from Curtis’s mom and fellow scream queen Janet Leigh, and Curtis’s compelling work as a haunted woman who’s trying her very best to keep it together. 

The Last Dragon: From the music to the fashion to the action to the dancing, Michael Schultz’s 1985 hybrid of kung-fu movie and musical looks like it was made to go into a time capsule, and now it plays as one. It’s all very silly on the surface (and its mostly surface), as Leroy Green — aka “Bruce Lee-roy” — pursues and antagonizes the evil Sho’nuf, the Shogun of Harlem (Julius J. Carry III) while embarking on a charmingly chaste romance with a video jockey (Vanity). Executive producer Barry Gordy put his name in the title (I’d like to think the filmmakers got their revenge by making one of the villains a wannabee music mogul), but this feels like a film less reflecting the vision of a singular artist than the odd confection of influences and ephemera that were flying through the air in the mid-‘80s. And on that level, it’s a hoot. (Includes audio commentaries, featurette, and trailer.)

Carlito’s Way: Director Brian De Palma’s films tend to be dispersed into two groups: the heavily Hitchcock-influenced suspensers (Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out), and crime dramas like The Untouchables, Scarface, and this 1993 reunion with the latter’s star Al Pacino. But this one crosses over into the other category as well, thanks to an unbearably tense scene of Sean Penn waiting for an elevator (it’s better than it sounds) and a crackerjack climax, in which Pacino’s title character evades the hoods who want to kill him and slips through Grand Central in a virtuoso sequence that juices up on the filmmaker’s slick, relentless energy. Arrow Video’s 4K presentation beautifully captures the shadows of the ‘70s Manhattan settings, and if Pacino’s Puerto Rican accent is dodgy, his tough-guy bravado is unshakable. (Includes audio commentaries, new and archival interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes, and trailers.) 


La Bamba: At its best, Luis Valdez’s portrait of the short life of early rocker Ritchie Valens feels less like a biopic than like a rock movie of the era; its energy is infectious (especially early on), and it understands the subversive kick of playing, and loving, this music. Lou Diamond Phillips is startlingly charismatic as Ritchie, but as my colleague Zach Vasquez notes, the standout performance is Esai Morales as Valens’ bad-boy brother Bob; their thorny dynamic, a mixture of hero worship, questing for acceptance, and simmering resentment, is the most compelling in the picture. La Bamba occasionally veers into cliche, but it’s all performed and executed with such earnestness that only a killjoy could complain. (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, featurette, audition footage, and trailer.)

School of Rock: A PG-13 movie starring Jack Black and a bunch of grade-school kids should, by any definition, not rock. But director Richard Linklater, writer Mike White (pre-Enlightened and White Lotus) make a goofy, pre-fab-sounding premise into something joyful and energetic by harnessing their sheer, unvarnished love for the music in question, while Black is on fire — funny, wild, sweet, delightful — in a role pretty much tailor-made for his talents. Paramount’s new 20th anniversary limited edition puts it in a handsome steelbook, and it looks and sounds better than ever. (Includes audio commentaries, featurettes, music video, and trailer.)

The Pack: Robert Clouse, whose filmography runs the gamut from Enter the Dragon (yay!) to Game of Death (boo!), both wrote and directed this 1977 exploitation thriller, new to Blu from Scream Factory. The source material is Dave Fisher’s novel, but this thing has “Jaws knock-off” written all over it, concerning as it does an island tourist community that’s knocked on its ass when nature attacks. In this case, nature is a snarling pack of rabid dogs, adopted by summer visitors and abandoned to fend for themselves, who decide to take out their grievances on the poor souls who stick around. (Chief among them is Joe Don Baker, in an especially foul mood.) The dogs are convincingly dangerous — try not to think too much about how they got some of this footage — and Clouse delivers some solid scares and more than a few disturbing images, boosted considerably by Lee Holdridge’s deliciously bombastic score. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, and trailer.)

Primetime Panic 2: Fun City Editions follows up their excellent 2021 compendium of noteworthy made-for-TV movies with this new collection of three films, aired between 1977 and 1984, all produced by the issues-minded Michael Jaffe. The best-known of the bunch is The Death of Ritchie, a tough, fact-based, youth-in-trouble drama with Robby Benson as a teenage kid addicted to drugs and trouble, and Ben Gazzara in top form as his dad. It’s a rare depiction of drug addiction that knows there’s rarely a magic fix or skeleton key, and the writing and acting deftly conveys that the father’s stubbornness is a much an issue as the child’s addictions. Eileen Brennan lends able support as the mother; she has a more substantial showcase in Incident at Crestridge, as a new resident of a small Wyoming town who takes on a crooked mayor (Pernell Roberts) and a good-for-nothing sheriff by running for the latter post herself. And finally, TV movie queen Valerie Bertinelli stars in The Seduction of Gina as a young woman whose casual gambling habit becomes an addiction. It sounds rote, but Bertinelli nails Gina’s increasing desperation and fear, director Jerrold Freedman builds the dread brick by brick (with the help of a fine early score by Thomas Newman), and the cinematography by Jonathan Demme’s go-to guy Tak Fujimoto nicely captures the San Francisco locales. (Includes audio commentaries.) 

Sex, Power and Money – Films by Beth B: Beth B came up late in the ‘80s New York “No Wave” movement, making (along with her husband Scott B) rough-around-the-edges Super-8 shorts and features intended to provoke and proselytize. Kino Classics’ new compendium focuses more on her work in the ‘90s and beyond (though with a couple of dips back at the ‘80s), in which her sensibilities as filmmaker, visual artist, and commentator fused for a series of scrappy, striking think pieces, frequently featuring young actors on the rise (hello, Clark Gregg) and old pals from the scene like Lydia Lunch. (Includes interview.)

The Defilers / A Swill of Honey, A Swallow of Brine!: They called them “rougies,” exploitation movies from the era where nudity was allowed but sex was not, so their makers swapped out sex for violence. One of the most notorious was 1965’s Defilers, from producer David F. Friedman and director R. Lee Frost, in which two slimeballs kidnap an innocent young woman (the charming Mai Jansson) for their use and abuse. The sleazy subject matter is offset by the crisp black-and-white cinematography and snappy jazz score, as well as the sheer lunacy of the execution. Co-star Bryon Mabe re-teamed with producer Friedman to direct A Swill of Honey, in which a femme fatale (Stacey Walker) finds all sorts of ways to ruin any man who gives her a second glance. It runs out of steam by the end, but the striking editorial choices and Walker’s go-for-the-gusto performance make it worth a watch, and the AGFA/Something Weird Video presentation is, as usual, first-rate. (Includes audio commentaries, short film, and trailers.)

The Hard Part Begins: Before Prom Night, Canadian director Paul Lynch helmed something altogether different — a New Hollywood-eseque portrait of life on the road that plays now like the second half of a (very good) double-bill with Payday. Donnelly Rhodes stars as an old hand of a country musician, and much of the film’s appeal comes in its convincing portrait of life on the road, the interpersonal (and inter-band) turmoil of life as an almost-star, and the fringe types one meets along the way. Rhodes is especially good as the footloose and fancy free crooner whose lifestyle is finally catching up with him, while Nancy Belle Fuller finds all sorts of nuances in what could have been a dull romantic-interest role. (Includes audio commentary and interviews.)

Arnold: This 1973 chiller from Bing Crosby Productions (!) opens with a dead guy’s wedding (“I love Arnold so much, I refuse to let even death separate us”) and only gets battier from there. Stella Stevens is the corpse’s blushing bride, Roddy McDowell is her brother-in-law and secret lover, and Elsa Lanchester, Farley Granger, and Victor Buono turn up in supporting roles. The whole thing is a goofy blast, and Vinegar Syndrome’s restoration gives it the proper Gothic horror sheen. (Includes audio commentary and video essay.) 

Evil Judgment: Vinegar Syndrome works similar magic with this very Canadian, very ‘90s horror thriller, which combines the neon slime of Angel et. al. with slasher and giallo vibes to tell the story of an unhappy waitress who tries her hand at sex work and gets caught up in a serial killer’s web on her first night out, darn that luck. It’s a little stiff but it’s awfully compelling, thanks to the stellar gags by Michele Burke and the disciplined direction by Claudio Catravelli. (Includes audio commentaries and interviews.)

Messiah of Evil: Long before penning Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for their pals Spielberg and Lucas (to say nothing of making their ill-fated Howard the Duck), William Huyck and Gloria Katz co-wrote, co-produced, and co-directed this creepy, low-budget shocker, new on Blu from Radiance Films. Its influences are copious, from the zombies of Night of the Living Dead to the isolation of Carnival of Souls, but Huyck and Katz work the right, creepy vibes, the images are genuinely unsettling, the blood is so bright it borders on surrealism, and it all ties up into one chilling conclusion. (Includes audio commentary, archival interview, documentary, and visual essay.)

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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