With Netflix suffering through the throes of a much-discussed movie problem (‘flix, do whatever you need to do to pry the Criterion Collection away from Hulu, so help me), those in need of some cheap ‘n’ convenient streaming options are having to explore other services. Amazon Prime may not be as cheap as Netflix—unless you have a friend or family member’s password you can jack, which is totally wrong and you should not do it, ahem ahem—but in terms of film selection, it’s a much better deal. Here are 21 of the best recent films (“recent” being defined as “came out in 2013 or later”) on the site.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Ever since the great couch-jumping incident of 2005, it’s gotten increasingly easy to dismiss Tom Cruise as a narcissistic, extremist wacko. And hey: not inaccurate. But then, every once in a while, a Cruise movie will come out that makes you remember, oh yeah, this is why Tom Cruise was the biggest movie star in the world for so long. Edge of Tomorrow is one. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and its 2015 sequel Rogue Nation are others. He’s not the best actor in the world, and he’s rarely the standout in his own films (Dustin refers to the habit Cruise’s movies have of boosting the careers of of its female co-leads as the “anti-Adam Sandler curse”), but dammit, even decades on from his ’80s-’90s heyday, he has presence. He’s good at what he does. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, despite its atrocious punctuation, is a damn entertaining film, and it introduced a whole new group of people to Rebecca Ferguson. (The War of the Roses-based limited series The White Queen, starring Ferguson as low-level nobility turned Queen of England, is also on Amazon Prime, and it’s a good watch.)
Shaun the Sheep Movie
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about Shaun the Sheep Movie, Aardman Animations’ spinoff of their popular children’s TV series. There doesn’t need to be. The plot is fairly basic: A flock of sheep, led by the plucky Shaun, is stranded in the big city. Shaun must find his keeper, the friendly if more-than-slightly daft (and stricken with a case of amnesia) Farmer, and get everyone back home to their farm. Slapstick-y hijinks ensue. Shaun won’t make you weep like Toy Story 3 or anything, but it’s an extremely fun, well-done little film from the company that made the Wallace and Gromit movies. And as far as kid’s entertainment on Amazon Prime goes, anything’s a step in the right direction compared to Caillou.
Song of the Sea
For other non-Caillou children’s entertainment, there’s Song of the Sea, from director Tomm Moore. Rooted in Irish mythology—like Moore’s previous film, 2009’s The Secret of Kells—Song of the Sea focuses on the relationship between two siblings: Ben (David Rawle) and his mute younger sister Saoirse, whom Ben blames for the death of their mother in childbirth. The mythology twist: Saoirse, like her mother, is a selkie. Like Kells, Song of the Sea isn’t as high-energy and exciting as most other children’s animated offerings, but what it is is absolutely gorgeous. Put it on for your quiet, artistically inclined children and let them soak it in.
Love & Mercy
Love & Mercy, an unconventional biopic of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, came and went without much of a ripple when it debuted last summer. That’s a real shame, as it’s quite the good movie, bolstered by knockout lead performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack. Dano plays Wilson in the ’60s, when emerging mental illness coincided with his efforts to craft Pet Sounds, the album that would come to be regarded as his masterpiece. Young Wilson’s story is intercut with that of Wilson in the ’80s (Cusack), when the now largely forgotten musical icon was trapped under the thumb of a pill-happy quack psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti). Cusack’s movie choices have been positively Nic Cage-ian of late, but Love & Mercy is a welcome reminder of just how talented an actor he is.
Z for Zachariah
A sci-fi movie that’s not really a sci-fi movie at all, Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the population of Earth has been ground down to almost nothing. No, really: There are three people, total, in this movie, played by Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. John (Ejiofor) thought he was the only person left on the planet until Ann (Robbie) showed up; they start a life for themselves on Ann’s farm, but the arrival of a smooth-talking stranger (Pine) threatens to shatter the peace of the quiet little quasi-Eden they’ve built. It’s a great character piece for three great actors.
The plot of Room seems like something out of Investigation Discovery’s most lurid block of scheduling: At 17, a girl was abducted, forced into a single room, where she would be imprisoned for the next seven years. For two of those years, her only companion was Old Nick, the abductor who made weekly visits to rape her. But then came her son Jack, and with him hope. And with this, Room transforms into something more complex and compelling than its brutal premise suggests.
As you might expect, Room is a dark drama that deals with sexual abuse and trauma. Yet it is not bleak. Instead, it’s a film about hope and the healing power of love that is remarkably layered in its details and emotion. Brie Larson delivers a soul-shaking performance (as she did in Short Term 12). As Jack’s Ma, she is many things. She is his rock, building stories to keep him from dark truths. She is his protector, cajoling Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) to stay away from the tiny cupboard where Jack sleeps while the heinous man does his dirty business. She is warm, cuddling and playing with the boy within the four-confining walls, making it more of a home than you’d imagine. But she’s also a girl who remembers what was before room, resents this life, and sometimes loses patience with her ever-present roommate. Larson realizes all of this beautifully, while playing opposite child actor Jacob Tremblay, who—like his onscreen Ma—is earning Oscar buzz.—Kristy Puchko
Embrace of the Serpent
In 1909, an Amazonian shaman leads a German scientist named Theo through the jungle to find a rare plant, said to have healing powers. Thirty years later a botanist, having read Theo’s journal, retraces the older scientist’s steps in an attempt to find the plant for himself. That plot summary does absolutely no justice to Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which is trippy, cerebral, visually stunning and vaguely disconcerting, like if Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey had a child, and that child was raised by Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. I honestly don’t know how to properly describe it. Luckily, if you have Amazon Prime, you can give it a look for free and see if it’s your sort of weird.
You’ve known it since you saw the trailer—Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian thriller from directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, is bone-jarringly terrifying. We have creepy twins, we have body horror, we have bugs. Twin brothers Lukas and Elias have been largely on their own for the summer while their mother was off getting plastic surgery done. Mommie Dearest comes home, her face swathed in bandages… but is it their mother after all? Then shit gets twisted. (Massive spoilers at the link.)
Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, and the always-great Ben Mendelsohn star in Slow West, about a sheltered Scottish teen (Smit-McPhee) who makes the decision to cross the Atlantic and trek across the old West to reunite with his first love (Caren Pistorius). Capital-R romantic, but also grossly inadvisable, considering this poor noodle has absolutely no clue how to do things like “not get murdered.” Luckily, he procures assistance from a mysterious stranger named Silas (Michael Fassbender), who agrees to get him to his destination; that stranger, in turn, is hunted by a bounty hunter (Mendelsohn) whom Silas used to work with. Dark comedy runs through this unconventional western, partially during the siege that serves as the film’s main action setpiece. (I’ll just say the word “salt,” and you’ll know what I mean when you get to it.)
At one point the Next Big Thing du jour, the career of British actor Jack O’Connell hit a stumbling block when, after a series of well-regarded indies, his first big Hollywood debut came and went from theaters with barely a whimper. Seriously, who remembers Unbroken is even a thing that happened? But the blandness of that movie isn’t O’Connell’s fault—the guy’s genuinely a good actor, as can be seen in Yann Demange’s historical thriller ‘71. O’Connell plays Gary Hook, a British soldier sent with his platoon to pacify the increasingly rebellious population of Belfast. (This is during the Troubles, when relations with Northern Ireland weren’t exactly at their peak.) During a skirmish, a soldier is hit with a rock, and all hell breaks loose; as the dust settles, Gary, wearing his British Army uniform, is left stranded in a neighborhood filled with some seriously pissed-off Irishmen. From there, it’s just a matter of surviving the night.
There’s been a trend that’s gained steam over the last decade or so, in which a movie isn’t deemed smart or clever or fully realized unless it has a great twist. Short of that, it should have some spectacular effects and probably Andy Serkis doing mocap or something. Ex Machina, however, bucks all of those expectations— not that it doesn’t have great effects (because wow is its A.I. depiction seamlessly impressive), or great surprises, but the movie flies in the face of so much of what the sci-fi genre (and, really, most movies) has become by reverting to its simplistic roots. Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later in his directorial debut, has created a movie of ideas. And while it would be fantastic if that’s weren’t such a refreshing rarity, this is the cinematic landscape we’re living in and at least we can appreciate the fact that this specific rarity completely nails everything it sets out to accomplish.—Vivian Kane
Interstellar isn’t Christopher Nolan’s best film, but it’s far from his worst, either. (Hi, The Dark Knight Rises.) If it gets a little maudlin and spacey (ba-doom-ch) at times (Christopher Nolan, don’t make Anne Hathaway monologue about the metaphysical power of love, Big Emotional Moments is not what you are good at), it nonetheless packs a walloping dose of majestic space porn that, I will admit, got me a little verklempt. Interstellar, along with fellow recent release The Martian (not on Amazon Prime), has an optimistic, science-positive take on space exploration that’s sadly uncommon. If you don’t want to see humanity band together to boldly go, then get out of my face. Interstellar also gave us the short-lived but Grade A McCounaughey reacts meme.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a heartbreaking tale of destroyed dreams. Folk-singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), still grieving from the death of his best friend and musical partner, tries so hard to become a reasonable facsimile of a functional human adult: to have a career, to establish meaningful relationships, to have something of his own. But you know, even before a soul-crushing scene with the music exec near the end of the film (“I don’t see a lot of money here”), that no matter what he does, it’s never going to happen. All that is to say, I used the scrotum gif instead of something with Isaac and his wonderful hair in this movie, because I need to keep it light for the sake of my mental health.
Show of hands: Who’s still smarting from Selma’s Oscar snubs? The fact that The Imitation Game got eight noms that year to Selma’s two is fucking ridiculous.
A Most Violent Year
And speaking of Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, and David Oyelowo movies: Margin Call director J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year! Isaac plays Abel Morales, an aspiring businessman who owns a small heating company in 1981 New York. It’s a classic loss of innocence story, as the pressures of the industry gradually turn Abel from honest and upright man to one who’s corrupt and violent, egged along by his mob-born and -bred wife (Chastain).
If you watched and enjoyed writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (though perhaps “enjoyed” isn’t the best word for a movie that keeps you perpetually on-edge like Green Room does), you owe it to yourself to check out his 2013 film Blue Ruin. Like Green Room (and Saulnier’s first film, 2007’s Murder Party), Blue Ruin is about an average Joe who gets trapped in the middle of a grisly situation that he’s in no way capable of handling. In Green Room, a punk band performing at a Neo-Nazi club accidentally witnesses a murder and must fight their way through a group of heavily armed skinheads, led by Patrick Stewart, in order to escape. In Blue Ruin, the central poor schlub is Dwight (Macon Blair, who plays Stewart’s second-in-command in Green Room), a vagrant whose parents were murdered by a man who, as the film starts, has just been released from prison. Dwight decides to go on a vengeance quest, but well… let’s just say Charles Bronson he ain’t. Like Green Room, Blue Ruin mixes high tension and violence with a steady stream of (very) dark comedy. To quote Michael Scott: Dwight, you ignorant slut.
But if you like your comedy a bit more funny ha ha, with more jokes and less blood, there’s Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, about a driftless 20-something comedian (Jenny Slate) whose one-night stand with adorable muffin in human form Max (Jake Lacy) results in an unplanned pregnancy. When it came out, Obvious Child was touted as the “abortion rom-com,” but that’s a little too flip; Obvious Child is less about abortion than it’s about the difficulties of accepting that evil demon, adulthood, into your life. (Unlike a good chunk of the umpteen other young adult coming-of-age dramedies to wend their way through the festival circuit every year, Obvious Child is actually good.) Slate and Lacy are both too good to be pigeonholed into one genre, but I swear to God, they’re both so funny, charismatic and relatable that they could rescue the rom-com genre from the B-list hell it’s found itself in if we let them.
They Came Together
Your mileage may vary on They Came Together, director David Wain’s (Wet Hot American Summer) spoof of every rom-com trope under the sun. Vivian had it right in her (negative) review—this movie is one extended SNL sketch. I enjoyed the film more than she did—it’s far from the funniest movie there ever was, or even the funniest movie of 2014 (Neighbors, 22 Jump Street, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The LEGO Movie also came out that year), but it follows the David Wain tradition of putting a ton of talented comic actors into one movie and letting the craziness unspool. If that’s your thing, it’s a good background movie to have on. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler play the couple at the heart of the film (“You like fiction books?”), with Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Cobie Smulders, Jason Mantzoukas, Michael Ian Black, Randall Park, Christophe Meloni, Ed Helms, Teyonah Parris, Ken Marino, Max Greenfield, Melanie Lynskey, and Jack McBrayer also putting in appearance. (If you’re OK with probably the best cameo of 2014 being spoiled, watch this clip.)
There’s no shortage of films that have taken the 2008 economic crash as their inspiration, from the doc The Queen of Versailles to J.C. Chandor’s aforementioned Margin Call to Adam McKay’s The Big Short, a strong contender at the most recent Oscars. A less flashy 2015 film about the economic meltdown than The Big Short (there’s no Margot Robbie in a bathtub, for example) is Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes. Andrew Garfield plays Dennis, a poor Florida construction worker who loses both his home and his ability to provide for his mother (Laura Dern) and young son. And then along comes a devil in a fancy suit, puffing on an e-cig: Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a real estate broker who gets rich off cheating poor schmucks like Dennis. Dennis doesn’t want to work for him, but what can he do? One big spandex-clad exception aside, Garfield is a pretty selective actor, having appeared in only a small handful of films since his breakout in The Social Network six years ago. 99 Homes sees him in rare form, as an increasingly desperate man trying to square his need to get his family’s home back with his pesky conscience.
Under the Skin
Every so often there’s a film that moves beyond pure entertainment, and manages to touch on culture, mysticism, sexuality and even art without being tiresome. Films that are able to gently deliver the viewer to these different areas while presenting a unique point of view seem to be lost to the past, movies with expansive horizons such as 2001 or The Shining spring to mind, but comparing Under the Skin to any one genre or film is a waste of breath. To put it simply, Under the Skin is beautiful science fiction for grown ups.—Amanda Mae Meyncke
The Skeleton Twins
The maddening thing about clichés is that, if we’re being honest, they’re basically the foundation for everyday life. What is more frustrating than to recognize that you, your thoughts, your dreams, your biggest obstacles, are nothing more than a big heap of been-there-done-that? Everyone has felt this at some point (and most of us probably have the feeling daily), the utter futility of trying to feel original. That’s the beauty of The Skeleton Twins. The movie doesn’t avoid the clichés, either in plot points or indie film tropes. It just lets them exist, finding itself, what makes it special, inside the mundanity. Just as we all are forced to do, every day.—Vivian Kane