When we were kids, here's how it worked when you wanted to watch a movie on TV: you'd get the following week's TV Guide, and you'd scour it from end to end. You trained your eye to pause at the listings for channels 5, 9 and 11 on weekends, channel 7 during weekday afternoons and Sunday night, and of course all the channels, especially channel 13, during the late night listings. You'd make your selections, either mentally or in ink, and then on the day and time those selections would air, you had to be in front of the TV. No time-shifting. No taping. No pausing. If Curse of the Werewolf only aired at 3AM (which it invariably did), staying awake until five in the morning was your only chance of seeing it from beginning to end. No second chances via endless cable reruns or trips to the video store. You had seven channels to find any particular movie, and said movie ran MAYBE twice a year. Watching a hidden cinematic gem required tenacity, perseverance and a horribly prioritized lifestyle (anecdotal: in the '70s and '80s, you could be a cinephile or an above-average high school student, but not both).
A few months ago a Facebook friend exclaimed he had just found out that Thomas Edison made the first film version of Frankenstein, a fact I learned around 1979 from reading about it in one of the dog-eared monster movie books at the library. (Shout-out to Thomas G Aylesworth.) The difference between this friend's experience with the film and my own is that I had to wait approximately 23 years between reading about Thomas Edison's Frankenstein and finally getting to see it; my friend was able to watch it within 30 seconds of learning of its existence.
All of this to say that digital streaming is truly amazing, a paradigm shift utterly inconceivable in my teenage years. And while it's awesome that you can now watch every season of Breaking Bad or Cake Boss in a single weekend, let's not lose sight of the real reason you sons of bitches are SO lucky now: a century of cinema literally at your fingertips. For whatever reason, though, pointing you toward the good stuff seems to not be a priority for the various streaming services, whose search functions often strain the definition of the word "function." And since I kind of miss circling movies in my TV Guide, here's an attempt at a regular column in which I point out some great films you could be watching in mere seconds with a few taps on your computer or tablet or Roku remote (please don't watch them on your phone). There's no unifying theme (this time); they're not necessarily deep cuts or true obscurities. Just diving into the wealth of content out there and shining a light on some films that might have slipped past you. All are currently available on Netflix and/or Amazon Instant.
The Seven-Ups: I know a lot of movie fans who, upon watching the venerated The French Connection, profess that they "don't see what the big deal was." I usually recommend that they watch any three cop movies produced, say, three years before The French Connection, at which point the film's influence becomes clear. The French Connection forever changed the way we see policemen in film. Without William Friedkin's 1971 film, you don't get Serpico, you don't get Lethal Weapon, and you definitely don't get The Seven-Ups, a 1973 film which was probably greenlit directly on the heels of Connection's success. It's packed with great, "real" New York faces (Roy Scheider! Joe Spinell! Richard Lynch!), and is based on the war stories of some of the same real-life cops who inspired Connection. While it's maybe not a better film than Friedkin's, it's got a car chase that easily trumps his (and almost any other), and needs to be seen.
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles: If you live on the east coast and are over 30, you've probably seen weird, colorful tiles embedded in city intersections, containing cryptic messages about Stanley Kubrick, Arnold Toynbee and/or the planet Jupiter. Justin Duerr saw them, and spent years trying to trace them to their source, a quest which culminated in this 2011 film. What starts off as a wobbly DIY documentary quickly becomes an engrossing, paranoid thriller about two men and their respective obsessions that will have you cheering each new clue, as well as the filmmakers' years-long determination. I have a soft spot for this one, as it's set in Philadelphia, and I've been wondering about these tiles since around 1990.
Trees Lounge: Do people remember this one? In 1996, Steve Buscemi generated a bit of a buzz with his directorial debut, a very "90s indie" piece about a loser drinking his life away in a seedy neighborhood bar. It's obviously a labor of love, looks to be very, very low-budget and is filled with recognizable character actors - Seymour Cassel, Carol Kane, Mark Boone Junior, Daniel Baldwin, Chloë Sevigny and a few actors from the Goodfellas/Sopranos stable. It was released on DVD in a 4:3 transfer and seemingly forgotten; Netflix and Amazon currently have it in HD. I'm really curious how it might play to a contemporary audience; back in 1996, the mere fact that it was an east coast indie about anything besides wannabe gangsters made it a breath of fresh air.
Beach Red: A truly bizarre World War II movie from actor/director Cornel Wilde (The Naked Prey). The 1967 release is a uniquely transparent indictment of Vietnam, all the more ballsy for being produced and released during the war itself, as opposed to decades after the fact. Beyond that, one can't help but watch this film today and not think of Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line; its idyllic scenes of civilian life intercut with the grisly images of war and the disembodied narration of nameless soldiers tie it directly to that film. Similar to what The French Connection did for cop movies, Beach Red is an important stepping stone from "old time" war movies to the more contemporary realism of the 1970s.
Full Moon High: For some reason 1981 was the Year of the Wolf - we got An American Werewolf In London, The Howling, Wolfen, and Full Moon High, an all-but-forgotten, low-rent nugget from director Larry Cohen. Teenagers and monsters go back decades before Twilight, kids, and this film is a kind of missing link between I Was A Teenage Werewolf and Team Jacob. More Meatballs than Martin, Full Moon High was eclipsed by Teen Wolf a few years later, and has the more logical narrative choice of turning the adolescent lycanthrope into a football star. Male menstruation jokes and a wonky '80s supporting cast (Ed McMahon, Alan Arkin, Pat Morita and Jim J. Bullock) round out this old cable staple.
Bonus pick - Death Wish: Of course you already know all about Death Wish; Devin recently wrote an amazing column about it. The only reason I mention it here is that the only way you can currently watch the film in HD is on Netflix. That's right: the ugly Death Wish 2 is on Blu-ray, as is the gonzo Death Wish 3 and the comparatively terrible Death Wish 4. But the classic 1974 original remains in DVD catalog limbo. Get on it.