As with all of the major streaming services Amazon has its pros and cons. Among the pros are the TV library and access to new movies. Digging into the movie catalog shows that the streaming service still has a ways to go, especially if you compare Amazon vs. Netflix. But fear not, there are still enough movies available for free (if you have a Prime account) to whip up a list of recommendations.
The best movies on Amazon
1) Ex Machina
Writer-director Alex Garland is one of the best sci-fi minds going in film. He favors heady stories that creep you out and his debut behind the camera is no different. Aside from launching the most popular film GIF of 2015 (Oscar Isaac's red-light soaked dance number), Ex Machina established Garland as a directorial force.
2) Sin City
Ah, the last legitimately great movie Robert Rodriguez made before going on an unfortunate run of movies nobody was interested in. (Planet Terror was fine.) In adapting Frank Miller’s graphic novel Rodriguez found the perfect outlet. It allowed him his technical indulgences (the use of green screen is particularly noteworthy) and the anthology approach helped focus his shortening attention span. The result was revolutionary at the time and is still the gold standard a decade later.
This documentary tells a story we all know about and have unfortunately heard many variations on before. Amy Winehouse’s career is tragic all the way and the movie is hard to watch, but it’s important. It’s too easy to blame drug addicts for their own problems, but what this movie does so well is ask the question of what do you do when the people who are supposed to love you the most are complicit in your downfall?
4) The Mist
I hope nobody’s spoiled the end because one of the pleasures of this Stephen King adaptation is getting the wind knocked out of you by its climax. Even if you know how it ends, there’s still so much more to enjoy: a strong leading man in Thomas Jane, the craziest nutjob Marcia Gay Harden has played, to the overall creepiness of the setup. Here an entire town is overcome by a mysterious, impenetrable mist, and a group of survivors trapped inside a convenience store make poor decisions. The claustrophobic setting is the perfect stage to watch humanity crumble.
5) Silence of the Lambs
Before Hannibal Lecter suffered from over-exposure (and then redeemed him with a cool, artsy TV show), he blew everyone’s minds when Anthony Hopkins first donned the mask and straight jacket. What gets lost among the first layer of Silence of the Lambs chatter, however, is how deftly it explores the constant challenge of being a woman in a man’s world. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) not only has to deal with condescension and mind games from the psychopaths she’s after but also from her FBI colleagues. Once Lecter-mania washes away, Clarice’s struggles remain as the real reason to keep coming back to the most successful adaptation of Thomas Harris’s work so far.
There’s an easy sell when it comes to watching Gremlins: It provides a nice build-up to the sheer insanity of Gremlins 2, its memorably meta sequel. Even if it was an only child, however, this Christmas tale of a cute furry creature and the horrific monsters it spawns would be worth experiencing because, through all the jump-scares and the silly comedy, this movie has heart—far more than the movie that came after.
7) Mission: Impossible
It’s hard not to love the M:I franchise (even with the ludicrous John Woo contribution) and it’s easy to make the argument that, save for No. 2, each movie in the series has gotten better. Much like with the Terminator films, however, the original (reboot) is nearest and dearest for its bold decisions and swashbuckling action.
8) The VVitch
Writer-director Robert Eggers spent years meticulously researching 17th-century New England and getting his debut film made, then a year showing it at film festivals before its proper release in 2016. The patience and dedication to authenticity comes through in the final product. Eggers' film is patient, atmospheric as hell, and deeply unsettling. It's about a Puritan family expelled from their community and the trouble they encounter living on their own. The vision is uncompromising and distinct, qualities that have drawn excited comparisons to no less that Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson. That puts an unenviable amount of pressure on Eggers' follow up, whenever that comes out, but his craft is undeniable and worth getting worked up over.
Consider this a preemptive endorsement. I haven't had time to catch up with Kirsten Johnson's documentary, but I've been looking forward to it every since I first heard about it and the film just hit Prime. Johnson is a career cinematographer who worked on many documentaries, such as Darfur Now and the Oscar winning Citizenfour. Cameraperson is made up of unused footage Johnson shot over the years, edited together in a way that is supposed to put Johnson under the microscope as much as it does her subjects.
10) No Country for Old Men
Aided by numerous late-night cable viewings No Country has ascended to the top of my Coen Brothers power rankings. I’m hard pressed to think of a more impeccably crafted thriller. It’s visceral, unflinching, and even has a few moments for philosophizing (courtesy of Tommy Lee Jones’ lawman). Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh has ascended into the pantheon of great villains, and it’s well-deserved. Chirgurh is precise in everything he does, and his expressionless stare pierces through the screen and into your soul. But don’t underestimate Josh Brolin, who matches Bardem’s preternatural calm with his own, but with enough cracks in the tough exterior to let his nerves show.
11) Blue Ruin
Built in the mold of the Coen Brothers’ debut Blood Simple, Blue Ruin is a tightly wound thriller with just enough moments of dark humor to keep the whole thing from suffocating in its seriousness. Director Jeremy Saulnier has proven himself to be a skilled craftsman between this and 2016’s punks versus neo-Nazis Green Room. He’s a lean filmmaker: little to no exposition, no wasted moments, and no mercy. Saulnier is a director on the rise, and Blue Ruin is the best way to get familiar with his skills before he gets called up to make bigger movies where he’ll likely have less control.
12) Inside Llewyn Davis
If you’re following these recommendations in order, then this is the capper to a Coen Brothers evening. Llewyn Davis plays like one of the title character’s songs: haunting, sorrowful, and ultimately wonderful. Oscar Isaac gives a lived-in performance that rings so true you’ll be disappointed that he doesn’t have a blues side project going. The movie takes place over the course of a week, with Llewyn playing his songs and trying to grab his big break—if he could just get out of his own way long enough to let it happen. We’re getting to the point where we’ll start seeing “best of the decade” lists coming together, and this film is sure to appear on many lists. Many people skipped it during its 2013 release, and if you’re one of those people, or if you haven’t seen it in awhile, it’s time to rectify that.
13) 99 Homes
Ramin Bahrani’s housing crisis thriller plays as the more serious, less snarky companion to The Big Short. Michael Shannon gives a typically intense and great performance as a real estate broker who’s more shark than human. Andrew Garfield is a struggling family man whose house is foreclosed on by Shannon, before eventually being convinced to work for the man who forced his family to live out of a motel. It’s a story that shows the real-life effects of the housing crisis and how people dealt with it. Sure, it’s exaggerated in places, but that exaggeration isn’t too far from the reality. There are a few eviction scenes that are gripping and heartrending as anything you’ve seen lately.
Director Matthew Vaughn is a director I go back and forth on. I’m bored by his X-Men movies and can’t even make it through the Kingsman trailer, but I have an inexplicable fondness for Kick-Ass. But the real jewel of his filmography is Stardust, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel. It’s about a man who promises to retrieve a star from a magical land as a show of commitment to his lady love. The film is as whimsical and fantastical as that description implies without being saccharine, and it’s a blast. The good feeling you get from watching it will linger for a while and we could all stand to smile more.
15) The Lobster
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos tells his satirical stories in such a deadpan, straight-faced way that it’s easy to (wrongfully) write him and his work off as detached nihilism. His style is an acquired taste, but if you’re willing to take the chance, I find his films to be worth the investment. The Lobster is about a single man (a schlubby, sad-sack, terrific Colin Farrell) who is forced by the government to check into a hotel, wherein he’ll have 45 days to find a mate or be turned into an animal of his choosing. The first half of a the film takes down every aspect of modern-day courtship, while the second half shifts into something more optimistic and, dare I say, romantic. Farrell does some of his best work to date, and the rest of the cast (Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, and Lea Seydoux, among others) is uniformly excellent.
This documentary tells the story of former NFL player Steve Gleason. Gleason played for the New Orleans Saints, among other teams, before retiring in 2008. Gleason was diagnosed with ALS (more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2011. The documentary charts Gleason’s battle and his advocacy, while also showing how his family has adapted to their circumstance. It’s an incredibly touching film, one that is inspirational and full of hope even in the darkest of moments.
17) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
This one is a pretty straightforward recommendation. We all like Gene Wilder and we all like his work as benevolent candy man Willy Wonka, so put this one of when you want to flashback to when you were a kid. Or watch it with your kids and see if they’re as enthralled and amused by it as you were. But, whatever you do, don’t waste your time, or your kids’ time, with Johnny Depp’s candy-coated misfire.
Not The Room, just Room. Drop the “The” and trade Tommy Wiseau for the infinitely more charming Brie Larson. Room is based on the bestselling Emma Donahue novel of the same name, and it’s about a woman who was kidnapped and has spent five years living in a room with her son. It’s unquestionably harrowing, but the film opens up in the second half when mom and son (Jacob Tremblay, doing some strong kid acting) regain their freedom. It’s an emotional gauntlet, but one that is worth going through for Larson’s Oscar-winning work.
19) Trading Places
Everyone always touts Eddie Murphy’s work in the ‘80s as a defense for his latter career choices. At first it was a reflex, but as time goes by it’s become more of a necessity, like you have to remind yourself that it’s actually true. Murphy’s run in the ‘80s is like Will Ferrell’s 2000s. Murphy and fellow ‘80s titan Dan Aykroyd are tremendous as a hustler and an investor, respectively, trying to live like the other half as part of someone else’s scheme. Directed by another ‘80s mainstay John Landis, Trading Places is hilarious and biting and holds up extremely well.
Charlie Kaufman is arguably the best American filmmaker going right not. Or the most important. At the very least, he’s the best screenwriter. Anomalisa marks his second directorial effort after the much praised Synecdoche, New York, and it’s full of the pathos and introspection that have marked much of his work to date. It’s about a lonely man living a pedestrian life who meets someone who breaks up the monotony. But it’s about so much more than just that. Kaufman has written some of the absolute best films of the last 20 years (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but he doesn’t get the chance to direct very often, so we have to savor the films we do get from him.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.