×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

41 Best Movies On Showtime In 2021

Showtime's library of streaming titles is a robust collection of some of the best films of the past three decades. Their movie catalog includes not just recognized classics but great films that have fallen under the radar, awaiting the rediscovery that can happen through a streaming service. Even better, Showtime has added plenty of acknowledged classics and underseen gems to their film lineup through their deal with independent distributor A24, which gives them the exclusive streaming rights to all of A24's acclaimed catalog.

Thanks to the A24 deal, 2021 has seen Showtime add some great new releases to their library as well as the usual selection of worthwhile films from earlier years. Here are 41 of the best films that were available on Showtime in 2021, encompassing the best recent work done by major Hollywood studios as well as beloved arthouse directors.

The Humans

In Stephen Karam's "The Humans," Karam faithfully adapts his Broadway play of the same name, about a family coming together for a tense Thanksgiving dinner. It's good material to showcase the talents of the cast, including Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, and Jayne Houdyshell, with Houdyshell reprising the role that won her a Tony in the play's original Broadway run. But Karam does more than just film the play as he wrote it, he makes it cinematic with clever choices in production design and cinematography. He frequently downplays the significance of the actors in the frame, keeping them offscreen even as they deliver important dialogue and making them share screen space with banal pieces of set dressing. The effect is bizarre at first, but it's suited to the material's uneasy tone and it's a clever way of conveying that tone using methods that would be impossible for a play.

Spring Breakers

Prior to releasing "Spring Breakers" in 2013, filmmaker Harmony Korine was best known for making provocative, intentionally hard-to-watch movies like "Gummo" and "Julien Donkey-Boy," and this film was a departure for its simple and enticing hook of bikini-clad teen stars, including Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, committing crimes in sunny Florida. But Korine took that premise to some audience-unfriendly places while chopping their story up with non-linear editing, emphasizing visual sensations over plot and drinking in the oversaturated, sun-drenched colors of Florida even as events take a turn for the violent. The result is something hypnotic and scary, with plenty of humor provided by James Franco's performance as a rapper who loves to brag about his life as a low-level criminal.

Under the Skin

Director Jonathan Glazer has only made three feature films to date, but all three are great — and "Under the Skin" might be the best of them. Plenty of movies have been made about aliens, but "Under the Skin" is unique in how it stays completely in the perspective of its nonhuman protagonist, coldly viewing human rituals without understanding what they are. The gaze of Glazer's camera is still and unforgiving, particularly as it observes humans obliviously being led to their certain deaths. 

As the central alien, Scarlett Johansson is riveting even as she shows no recognizable emotion, going through the motions of appearing human when she's really hunting down her prey. She's so convincing as a blank that it's shocking when she begins to show some genuine emotion, which only leads her into danger. The story of an alien learning to love could seem sappy from any director besides Glazer, but he views even Johansson's change of heart with the same unblinking, unforgiving eye.

Zola

Janicza Bravo's "Zola" is adapted from a viral Twitter thread describing a trip to Florida that goes horribly wrong, and Bravo incorporates the sounds and visuals of social media into her filmmaking. The result is the best movie yet made about the joys and hazards of being online, where what's funny one minute could turn out to be dangerous the next. Taylour Paige is hilarious as the title character, more frustrated than scared by the sometimes violent events that happen around her. Not even the film's most frightening character, Colman Domingo as a man who seems genial until he explodes into rage, does more than annoy Zola. The film as a whole follows Zola's unbothered demeanor, laughing off scary situations and staying entertaining even when blood starts spilling.

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" is arguably the greatest Best Picture winner of the last decade, fitting all the best and worst moments of growing up into less than two hours. 

Jenkins deserves significant credit for how clear he makes the journey of main character Chiron, considering he's played by three different actors with significant gaps in time between each change in actor. The audience can fill in the blanks on their own when the film jumps from one section to another, which testifies to the strength of Chiron's characterization in the parts of his life that are shown. But more than his script, Jenkins' best tool with "Moonlight" is his overwhelming romanticism, viewing even the most unassuming corner of the world as a place where there's beauty everywhere you can look.

First Reformed

Writer/director Paul Schrader has made a career of movies about self-destructive men and the crumbling worlds they occupy. One of his best movies to date is "First Reformed," which takes the angst of Schrader's script for "Taxi Driver" and applies it to a world living in fear of climate change. Ethan Hawke rarely gets to play as quiet as he does in the lead here, starring as a reverend experiencing a crisis of faith that may lead him to environmental terrorism. Schrader offers no easy answers about the morality of Hawke's actions, agreeing with him on the evil of corporations polluting the earth but also seeing selfishness in his attempt to become a martyr. And while it's easy to relate to Hawke spiraling after thinking too much about the effects of climate change, Hawke plays self-righteousness and cruelty just as often as he plays more honorable intentions.

Damsels in Distress

Before she became a writer/director, Greta Gerwig was one of the most exciting actors working in America. Among her best performances is her lead role in Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress," a comedy whose quirky tone and premise require a performer as skilled as Gerwig to not come off as annoying or in bad taste. 

"Damsels" is centered around the workers at a college suicide prevention center, but the tone is much lighter than that sounds, with frequent dance numbers and comedic dialogue paying homage to the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. Gerwig is a natural at both dancing and delivering Stillman's offbeat dialogue, and she also plays into the sadness at the movie's heart, revealing a character who wants to help others because she's unable to help herself. But heaviness never intrudes too much on Stillman's cartoon world, not when he comes up with characters like the college frat member who has not yet learned about colors.

Under the Silver Lake

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell's follow-up to his cult horror movie "It Follows," "Under the Silver Lake" was divisive at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and only received a small theatrical release in the U.S. a year later. Despite its mixed reception, "Silver Lake" is a great film, showing that Mitchell is a talented filmmaker in more than just horror. 

"Silver Lake" takes the form of a detective movie, with Andrew Garfield playing a slacker who uncovers a massive conspiracy when his neighbor goes missing. But the mystery is ultimately less the point than Garfield himself, who's as repellent as the worst people he encounters on his investigation. He rejects his responsibilities in favor of going on a glorified treasure hunt, mistreats every woman in his life, and lives a life based on cheap nostalgia, obsessing over Nintendo Power magazines and R.E.M. songs. It's a testament to Garfield's talent that he makes this character magnetic even at his most awful, an avatar of all that's wrong with society that you're still drawn to.

20th Century Women

Mike Mills makes movies, including 2021's "C'mon C'mon," that start as autobiography but end up telling much bigger stories. Mills' "20th Century Women" is based on his memories of living in Santa Barbara in 1979, but the Mills character is often sidelined to focus on the women in his life, each of whom represents a different kind of womanhood and a different reaction to the uncertain atmosphere of the late 1970s. A career-best Annette Bening plays a version of Mills' mother, increasingly concerned with how little she understands her son and the time he lives in. Greta Gerwig plays a version of his sister, who obsesses over punk and avant-garde photography as a distraction from a recent cancer diagnosis, and Elle Fanning plays his girlfriend, who makes a hobby of self-destructive behavior. They may begin as representations of Mills' family and friends, but together they form a picture of how women react to feeling adrift in their own lives, bridging the gap between the personal and the universal.

Croupier

Clive Owen's breakthrough performance came courtesy of his lead role in "Croupier," a crime drama which takes advantage of both his natural charm and his talent for playing unsavory individuals. Owen plays an aspiring writer who takes a job at a casino, a job that consumes his entire life and leads him to criminal activity. Owen plays off the contrast between his cool demeanor and good looks and the defective moral compass of his character, portraying a man who looks the part of being charming and sophisticated but is so passive and cold that there's not much humanity beneath the polished surface. He becomes a criminal not out of any particular desire to do so but because it's something to do, and even as his life falls apart he can't muster much of a reaction to it. It's a remarkable performance for how much information Owen gets across while never seeming to do anything at all.

Carlito's Way

"Carlito's Way" is doomed to exist in the shadow of Al Pacino and director Brian De Palma's previous collaboration, the legendary "Scarface." It tones down the excess and violence of "Scarface," instead telling the more intimate and tragic story of Pacino as a criminal trying in vain to start a new life. "Scarface" has maintained its reputation because of its shock value, with its gory set pieces and copious drug use, but "Carlito" is more romantic, wanting to believe that the Pacino character can escape a life of crime even as it begins with confirmation that he never will.

Usually when De Palma directs a movie, his camera movements are the main attraction, but here his technical excellence serves the story rather than overshadowing it. "Carlito's Way" is one of the most straightforwardly emotional films that De Palma has ever made, and he knows better than to disrupt its atmosphere with distractingly bravura camerawork.

De Palma

In addition to "Carlito's Way," Showtime also offers a fascinating documentary on Brian De Palma, co-directed by "Marriage Story" director Noah Baumbach. "De Palma" is made up of clips from De Palma's movies and an interview with De Palma, who is as entertaining a storyteller in front of the camera as he is behind it. De Palma discusses his entire life and career in order, covering every film he made up to 2013's "Passion" and holding nothing back. He happily criticizes people he didn't enjoy working with, even telling a hilariously unflattering story about actor Cliff Robertson's spray tan, and he admits which movies didn't turn out the way he wanted them to. The documentary's approach is simple but rewarding — it's rare to see an artist of any kind be so open about the career they've led and it's helpful to better understand the artistic voice behind his movies.

First Cow

One of many films denied a proper theatrical release by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly Reichardt's "First Cow" nevertheless found an audience during lockdown due to the overwhelming critical acclaim it received. While its beautiful Pacific Northwest landscape shots would seem to demand a movie theater, it casts a lovely spell no matter the size of the screen.

Reichardt makes quiet, unassuming movies, and "First Cow" is her gentlest movie to date. It's a movie about friendship, with two men on the margins of society, played by John Magaro and Orion Lee, joining together for a business partnership that becomes something much deeper. That business involves the men stealing the milk from a local rich man's cow, and the scenes of Magaro tenderly milking and talking to the cow are the film's high points. Even as things start looking grim for the main characters, the film unfolds with the kindness of Magaro's whispers into the cow's ear, Reichardt believing in the power of these men's friendship to the bitter end.

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight

Three of the best screen romances of all time are all part of the same trilogy. Starting in 1995 with "Before Sunrise," director Richard Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke tracked the relationship of Celine and Jesse, who meet by chance on a train going to Vienna and reunite nine years later. The "Before" trilogy develops their relationship in three stages over 18 years, the initial youthful infatuation of "Sunrise" leading to the bittersweet reunion of "Before Sunset" and the disappointments of middle age in "Before Midnight." Linklater's movies are known for their great dialogue, and all three "Before" movies are full of witty, philosophical monologues that eventually stop to reveal the quieter emotions Celine and Jesse are trying to hide. The power of the trilogy is in how much Delpy and Hawke say with silence, revealing the complicated emotions of being in love with someone that can't be verbalized.

Girlhood

Celine Sciamma has enjoyed a much higher profile after the release of her acclaimed "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," but "Portrait" was just one in a line of great films that Sciamma has made about young women. One of those films is "Girlhood," about a group of Black French teenagers who run away from home and attempt to start a life on their own. Sciamma is a master of movies about women trying to discover their own identities through groups of other women, trying to find a working combination of their own personality and the personalities of their new friends. In "Girlhood," the protagonist's attempts to become one with the group are a failure, but while it would be easy to make a straightforwardly sad movie of this story, Sciamma still finds plenty of joy in between moments of disillusionment, most notably in a scene where the protagonist lip-syncs to Rihanna's "Diamonds."

Milk

Gus Van Sant's name has lost most of its luster in the last decade, his productivity slowing down and the few movies he has directed mostly being critical failures like "The Sea of Trees." His most recent success remains 2008's Oscar-winning "Milk," which proves that Van Sant is an immense talent even as he's since fallen out of favor.

"Milk" would seem to be a conventional biopic of a great man, openly gay politician Harvey Milk, but Van Sant adds a lot to it that makes it much more than Oscar bait. He's a great actor's director, getting a surprisingly restrained performance from the often hammy Sean Penn and directing Josh Brolin to play Milk's assassin as less evil than frighteningly bland. Van Sant's strength with actors is topped only by his strength with visuals, underscored here in his collaboration with the late cinematographer Harris Savides. Van Sant and Savides meticulously recreate the soft-focus visuals of the '70s movies that came out when Milk was running for office, giving Milk's home of San Francisco a cozy atmosphere that gets brutally interrupted by bursts of homophobic violence.

The Souvenir

With 2021 seeing the release of "The Souvenir: Part II," Joanna Hogg's follow-up to her autobiographical drama "The Souvenir," now is a good time to watch the original. "The Souvenir" dramatizes Hogg's experiences as a young film student, developing her artistic voice at the same time she struggles to maintain a romantic relationship with a drug addict. As stand-ins for her and her mother, Hogg cast real-life daughter and mother Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, providing another layer of autobiography beyond just her own. The result is a film where every moment feels like it has a basis in someone's real life, where the audience watches reenactments of Hogg and the Swinton family's most painful moments. But while the subject matter is intimately personal, "The Souvenir" is so beautifully shot and well-acted that it draws the viewer deep into the problems of its stars and director until they seem as real to the viewer as their own.

Ginger & Rosa

Movies about troubled teenagers are a dime a dozen, but Sally Potter's "Ginger & Rosa" is original enough in its setting and specifics to set itself apart from the pack. Set near the start of the Cuban missile crisis, the film gives the fraught adolescence of its protagonist Ginger, played by Elle Fanning, literal life-or-death stakes, where the threat of losing her best friend is matched by the threat of nuclear annihilation. The already complex emotions of being a teenager are amplified by the feeling of a world about to go to war, particularly when her anti-arms father starts having an affair with her friend. "Ginger & Rosa" is not a particularly surprising movie, but Potter takes so much care to develop the world and characters around her teenage protagonist, particularly the group of activists she begins to fraternize with, that the familiarity of her journey matters less than it otherwise would.

Secretary

Long before "Fifty Shades of Grey" became the most popular cinematic portrayal of BDSM, another movie involving a businessman named Mr. Grey covered the subject first. That movie is 2002's "Secretary," a surprisingly sweet romantic comedy that has no judgment for its two leads, Maggie Gyllenhaal as a secretary and James Spader as her boss who turn their day-to-day working routine into a sadomasochistic relationship. Both the secretary and the boss are lost souls who find themselves healed by the rituals of S&M, and the disapproval of their families turns out to be misguided in light of the healthy relationship they create. "Secretary" provided Gyllenhaal her breakout role, showing what a charming actor she could be even in the most off-kilter film, but more surprising is the rare romantic leading man performance from Spader, who proves he can play sweet just as scummy.

Death Becomes Her

Robert Zemeckis' "Death Becomes Her" has become a classic among the LGBTQ community in the years since its release in 1992, even inspiring an episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race." As "Drag Race" participants explained to Vanity Fair, the appeal of "Death Becomes Her," to both queer and general audiences, is in the thrilling unlikability of its two female protagonists, who fight against society's unfair notions of female beauty by destroying each other and anyone who gets in their way. The protagonists are played by Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, both delighting in the opportunity to play as nasty as possible. And Zemeckis joins in the nastiness too, using what was then state-of-the-art prosthetics and CGI to create grotesque body horror as Streep and Hawn sustain horrible injuries. The effects still hold up, but more importantly the film is still very funny — it's easy to see why it still appeals to people almost 30 years later.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Steven Spielberg's filmography is filled with classics, but even in a crowded field, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" stands tall as one of his very best. 

Spielberg movies are often praised for their sense of wonder, and there's plenty of that in this story of aliens visiting Earth, particularly the awe-inspiring sights of the film's still impressive special effects. But what makes "Encounters" so special is that Spielberg shows plenty of horror in addition to magic, like Richard Dreyfuss coldly abandoning his family and a frightening sequence of a child being abducted by the aliens. Spielberg plays with so many mixed emotions that it's never taken for granted that the aliens are harmless, there's a real sense of mystery to their intentions which makes the reveal of their benevolence all the more powerful. The ending is one of Spielberg's greatest set pieces because it comes as such a relief, recoloring the whole movie into something more positive than it may have initially seemed.

Madeline's Madeline

With her 2018 film "Madeline's Madeline," director Josephine Decker makes a movie about storytelling that itself is a new and exciting form of storytelling. Decker uses disorienting editing and blurred images to convey the troubled mind of her titular protagonist, who escapes from a troubled home life with her mother into a theatre group. The group's director takes so strongly to Madeline that she begins writing a performance piece about her, not realizing that she's closer to exploiting Madeline than helping her. "Madeline's Madeline" is about the ethical dilemmas of trying to tell another person's story, and Decker's style helps to convey how hard it is to dramatize a life other than your own. All the style is backed with an incredible lead performance by newcomer Helena Howard, who keeps Madeline thrillingly unpredictable from beginning to end.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The character of Tom Ripley, a sociopathic con man taken to stealing other men's identities, originated in Patricia Highsmith's novels and has been brought to the screen multiple times with multiple actors in the part. One of the best interpretations of the character is seen in Anthony Minghella's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," with Matt Damon playing Ripley as a young man just learning the tricks of being a career criminal. The film also brings Ripley's sexuality to the forefront, playing up his seeming infatuation with his target, a rich kid played by Jude Law. The result is a movie that's both unsettling and erotic, its sunny Italian locations hiding troubling emotions and shocking bursts of violence. Damon and Law are perfectly cast, Damon doing a dark variation on the nice-guy image he got after "Good Will Hunting" and "Saving Private Ryan" and Law personifying glamour and sexuality. They're also backed by a great supporting cast, particularly a scene-stealing Philip Seymour Hoffman as Law's obnoxious friend.

sex, lies, and videotape

The long, varied career of director Steven Soderbergh began with his 1989 debut "sex, lies, and videotape," which won top honors at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. Soderbergh has since made so many left turns that "sex, lies" doesn't have much in common with anything else he's made, but it has the same great performances and intelligence as his subsequent bigger-budget movies. The film's four central cast members have rarely been better, the best of them being Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacomo as sisters who are each other's exact opposites, and Soderbergh's script gives them plenty of good dialogue and complex motivations to work with, finding interesting ways to dramatize people being unable and unwilling to share their feelings with others. Even as videotapes have long been obsolete, the script's insights about sexual frustration and people deflecting from their own problems by studying other people's problems still ring true — they've just moved from VHS to social media.

The Yards

The films of James Gray have often fallen under the radar, receiving critical acclaim but limited releases and minimal box office. One of Gray's many underseen gems is his crime drama "The Yards," the first of his four collaborations with Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix plays the devil on the shoulder of the main character, a recent parolee played by Mark Wahlberg, encouraging him to fall back into a life of crime. Phoenix is the most electrifying part of a movie that's otherwise very muted, but Gray's low-key approach does a lot to sell the sense of an impending tragedy. He takes inspiration from "The Godfather," down to casting James Caan as a crime boss, and if "The Yards" can't match "Godfather" in scope, it successfully imitates that movie's somber vision of a family that's doomed to collapse.

High Life

In her native France, Claire Denis has made some of the best and most challenging films of the last three decades. For her English-language debut, the sci-fi drama "High Life," she carries over the unsettling aspects of her French work but also those films' surprising tenderness. 

"High Life" begins with scenes of Robert Pattinson caring for his infant daughter, some necessary moments of sweetness before the violence of the rest of the movie. The story takes place mostly in space but the villains aren't aliens — they're humans using the miracle of space travel to mistreat their fellow man just as badly as they do on Earth. It's an unflinching movie, showing graphic scenes of both physical and sexual violence, but it all comes back to Pattinson and his daughter. Their bond is strong enough to outweigh the cruelty on display, offering the light of humanity even in the dark void of space.

Deja Vu

Denzel Washington starred in five movies directed by Tony Scott before Scott's tragic death in 2012. Among the best is "Deja Vu," Scott's 2006 thriller that starts with a sci-fi premise and ends as a tragic romance. 

Washington stars as a police detective attempting to solve a terrorist attack with time-travel technology, but during his investigation he falls in love with the image of one of the terrorist's victims, a young woman played by Paula Patton. Washington and Patton spend most of the film not interacting, but their performances are so strong that their meeting in the third act feels like the culmination of a great romance rather than two people meeting for the first time. In between the romance, there are superb action sequences, particularly a car chase that occurs over two different timelines, but the heart of the movie is Washington and Patton trying to fight against the inevitability of time and create a life together.

Raging Bull

Martin Scorsese has built a career out of making movies about flawed, violent men, few more direct than 1980's "Raging Bull," about famed boxer Jake LaMotta. Scorsese's movies often have a bit of comedy to make the violence a little more palatable, but "Bull" is all violence, all the time. Robert De Niro's performance as LaMotta is famous for the weight he gained to play the part, but what's more impressive is how scary De Niro is in the part. LaMotta can't keep his violent tendencies in the ring, he brings them home in terrifying scenes of him lashing out against everyone he loves. Boxing is the only sport that could take someone as full of rage as LaMotta, and De Niro plays him like he doesn't know how to do anything except box. Scorsese's masterful black-and-white images give "Bull" an elegance that provides ironic commentary on LaMotta's brutality, beautiful images of a man with an ugly soul. 

Babe and Babe: Pig in the City

Originals and sequels are rarely more different from each other than "Babe" and "Babe: Pig in the City." "Babe" is a triumph of simplicity, playing like a filmed children's book in its brevity and its straight-to-the-point message of kindness and acceptance. "Pig in the City," meanwhile, is defined by its excess, from its nameless city made up of landmarks from every metropolis in the world to its constant threat of violence against its cute animal protagonists. George Miller directs "Pig in the City" as a dry run for the overload he later accomplished with "Mad Max: Fury Road," filling it with set pieces of shocking complexity and manic energy. But as impressive as the visuals of "Pig in the City" are, what makes it work is that it stays true to the sweetness of "Babe," encouraging its audience to help each other out even when it seems impossible to do so. Both are great movies with powerful messages, they just come to those messages in vastly different ways.

Bug

When it was released in 2006, audiences hated "Bug" to the point of giving it a rare F CinemaScore. It's easy to see what turned people off "Bug," which seems from the outside like a horror movie about killer bugs but is actually a claustrophobic drama about two people losing their grip on reality. 

"Bug" starts out uncomfortable and only gets more so, as its two leads become more obsessed with conspiracies about government testing and start tearing their motel room apart in search of nonexistent bugs. This was one of the first leading-role showcases for Michael Shannon, whose usual intensity makes his character's paranoia both scary and compelling. It's easy to see why someone would be drawn to him even as he spirals out of control, and his screen partner Ashley Judd plays her part with palpable sadness. Their relationship is not easy to watch unfold, but their performances are so strong that it's also hard to look away.

Killing Them Softly

Like "Bug," Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly" received an F CinemaScore, audiences going into it expecting a Brad Pitt action movie and instead getting a moody drama about the 2008 financial crisis. It's definitely slow and depressing, but it's also powerful.

Like Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James," "Killing Them Softly" is about the last gasp of a subculture of criminals too old to hang onto their power, most tragically James Gandolfini as a mobster who's lost whatever power and respect he once possessed, and newcomers too inexperienced to last long in a violent world. Dominik's criminals no longer care about anything but money, and the backdrop of the recession proves that corporations and banks are more effective at stealing it. Every theft that occurs in "Killing Them Softly" is a small concern relative to the thefts being broadcast on TV, and those thieves are actually getting away with it. 

54 Director's Cut

When it was released in 1998, "54," a drama about the famous 70s nightclub Studio 54, had been recut and reshot against the director's wishes by Miramax and Harvey Weinstein. There were rumors of a superior director's cut for years, and in 2015 the director's cut was finally widely released

This version retains the strengths of the theatrical cut, particularly Mike Myers' performance as Studio 54 co-founder Steve Rubell, and helps to eliminate the flaws that Miramax's edits caused. The biggest change is restoring a subplot showing the bisexuality of the main character, a busboy at Studio 54 played by Ryan Phillippe, which was removed entirely from the theatrical cut. The reinstatement of this important character detail makes the new cut a much more accurate reflection of the open sexuality and queerness of the culture around Studio 54, turning what was previously just empty '70s nostalgia into a more substantive vision of the '70s as they actually happened.

The Master

With Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza" coming out in late 2021, now is a good time to watch one of his best movies, "The Master." "Master" was described at the time of its release as a movie about the creation of Scientology, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard, but that's only one part of Anderson's study of 1950s America, where the horrors of World War II have left many people searching for meaning. One of those people is an alcoholic sailor played by Joaquin Phoenix as a ball of rage and confused emotions, not unlike his Joker. The pairing of him and Hoffman's pompous religious leader seems doomed from the start, but Anderson finds surprising emotion in the relationship. It would seem that Hoffman is simply exploiting Phoenix for his own gains, but they need each other more than they can communicate, and the heartbreaking ending sees Hoffman trying in vain to tell Phoenix how much he loves him.

Four Brothers

The late John Singleton never matched the critical success and cultural impact of his directorial debut "Boyz N the Hood," but he continued to make good commercial entertainment throughout his career, with one of his most entertaining movies being 2005's "Four Brothers." "Four Brothers" begins with a murder but the tone is never too heavy, thanks in large part to the lived-in and funny sibling dynamic of the four brothers (Mark Wahlberg, Andre Benjamin, Tyrese Gibson, and Garrett Hedlund). Their banter, mostly made up of them teasing each other, conveys years of brotherly affection — they love each other and also have lived together long enough to know how to annoy each other. The plot has the brothers discovering a criminal conspiracy, but the real joy of the movie is just seeing them interact with each other, possessing an awkward but loving family bond that's rarely dramatized in films.

Byzantium

Neil Jordan remains best known for directing "Interview with the Vampire," but that's not his only film about vampires. 2012's "Byzantium" sets itself apart from "Interview" with its modern setting. Its vampires hang around dilapidated hotels and amusement parks, settings almost as old as the characters with all the scars of age that immortality prevents vampires from having.

Living in those decaying settings are Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as mother-daughter vampires. Ronan is especially perfect casting — she already has a maturity beyond her young age that makes her ideal to play someone who actually is older than she looks. Ronan's relationship with a sickly young man played by Caleb Landry Jones — turning him into a vampire might be a mercy — is a particular highlight of the film, and it combined with Jordan's beautiful imagery makes "Byzantium" well worth watching.

Glengarry Glen Ross

The legacy of "Glengarry Glen Ross," both the original play by David Mamet and the 1992 movie, is tied to one of the movie's only changes to the play, an added scene with Alec Baldwin as a businessman who viciously insults the central group of salesmen. But that scene shouldn't overshadow the rest of the great work done by Mamet and director James Foley in bringing the play to the screen. Foley assembles a top-notch cast to play the salesmen, particularly Jack Lemmon as a pathetic old-timer trying to hang on to his job and Al Pacino as a hotshot whose winning streak is about to come to an end. They make a meal of Mamet's venomous dialogue, full of desperate scheming that's bound to go wrong at some point — and solely to keep a job that doesn't seem worth keeping in the first place.

Homicide

"Glengarry Glen Ross" remains David Mamet's most famous work, but perhaps his best is 1991's "Homicide," which he wrote and directed. "Homicide" seems at first to be a police procedural, following Joe Mantegna as a cop investigating the murder of an elderly Jewish candy store owner. But the case starts making Mantegna question his own Jewishness, and what begins as a crime movie ends as a haunting study of a man who realizes he has no cultural identity. There's plenty of Mamet's typically witty dialogue, although Mamet's intention is not to dazzle with verbal wit but to disturb, to keep the audience as unsure about the events of the film as Mantegna is. His uncertainty leads him to some dark places, where he attempts to find comfort in acts of aggression against those he has no actual proof are his enemies. The uneasy effect is aided by cinematography from Oscar winner Roger Deakins, who covers the film in a murky fog that seems impossible to penetrate.

Dark Waters

"Dark Waters" came and went when it was released in late 2019, receiving zero Oscar nominations and grossing just over $11 million in North America. Its lack of success is a shame — it's not only a great film but an important one, shining a light on a horrifying, real-life example of corporate indifference leading to death and illness. 

It tells the story of a lawsuit against DuPont, accusing the chemical company of knowingly poisoning thousands of people near its West Virginia plant with a harmful substance linked to causing cancer and birth defects. Mark Ruffalo plays the crusading lawyer trying to hold DuPont accountable, but the horror of the film is realizing that Ruffalo can only do so much to fix a problem that's much larger than just one company behaving badly. Director Todd Haynes shoots the film in sickly yellows to suggest that the battle has already been lost, every location and household looks like it's already been poisoned by DuPont and all the companies favoring profit over human life.