Looking through all of streaming services has taught me a few things, but the most important one is this: use Hulu for TV needs and go somewhere else for movies.
Its selection pales next to Netflix and Amazon. The one caveat is that Hulu is the streaming home to the Criterion Collection, but that will end when Criterion… wait for it… starts its own streaming service in the fall. The list you’re about to read could’ve easily just been 20 movies from that, but that selection caters to people who want to deepen their film education and dip into snobbery. I say that lovingly.
For this list I sifted through and came up with a range of movies new and old, left the country for a few others, and snuck in some of the broader-appealing Criterion movies (I’ll let you figure out which ones).
I’m not sure if this is the best Christopher Nolan movie, but it’s my favorite. It’s a sprawling, messy epic that literally takes you to the edge of the universe and back and forth through time. It’s blatantly sentimentally, which is a change of pace from Nolan’s usually clinical, antiseptic style. He worked with some of the smartest people science has to offer to tell a story about a man trying to save the world for his daughter. This is why we love movies.
2) Memories of Murder
This is about South Korea’s first serial killer and the police squad’s inexperience with such crimes. It’s directed by Bong Joon-Ho, who would later adapt this story into a more fictionalized version. They’re both great. If you’re not familiar with Joon-Ho's work, you need to be.
While you’re riding the South Korean high, you owe it to yourself to watch the movie that put the country on the map, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. It’s a brutal, twisted movie about a man randomly put in solitary confinement for 15 years, only to be released into a world he doesn’t recognize. Lucky for him revenge hasn’t changed, so he’s off to find his captors and the more he learns the more he wishes he just stayed in that room.
4) Jerry Maguire
Cameron Crowe is stuck in his fall from grace period, but it’s worthwhile to dig back to when Crowe was still consistently great. It’ll help restore your faith in the man after his recent run of movies has just about burned up all his good will.
5) Spy Kids
Speaking of filmmakers who are still chasing the ghosts of past work, this family-oriented action movie is a great reminder of what made Robert Rodriguez a wunderkind in the '90s. Over the years it felt like his quest for technical innovation came at the expense of his storytelling, but movies like Spy Kids will make you root for a return to form.
6) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
It doesn’t feel right to call this movie overlooked, but it’s rarely the first movie anyone brings up when talking about John Hughes. This movie is every bit the equal of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and the rest of his filmography. Steve Martin and John Candy is a pairing that should have yielded more collaborations. Fortunately we have this one and it’s an all-timer.
7) Close Up
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is one of the world’s very best filmmakers. He specializes in finding humanity at bizarre situations. This film is about a man who impersonates a filmmaker in order to get into the home of a well-off family, and the subsequent trial once he’s found out. Kiarostami uses a mix of re-enactments and real footage to get at the heart of the imposter. Close Up landed on the Sight & Sound poll of the greatest movies of all time, coming in at No. 42.
Mean Girls before Mean Girls, Scream before Scream, that’s how I pitch this '80s classic to people who haven’t seen it. It’s a satire and a biting black comedy. Whether it’s Heathers, or Plastics, high school tales about the coolest of the cool and the people who want to undermine them are the forever-cool leather jackets of film.
Rounding out the run of movies from directors who have lost their fastball in recent times is Brian De Palma’s excellent Stephen King adaptation. You know how when people look back at older movies they shrug them off as corny or say “I’m sure it worked better when it first came out?” This is one that retains its creepiness and has sacrificed none of its effectiveness 40 years later.
10) Hoop Dreams
Steve James’s documentary tracks two teenagers chasing their basketball dreams. At nearly three hours long, this movie is about much more than basketball. The film sparked many conversations about race and class, and is just as vital and relevant today as it was upon its release in 1994.
11) The Eye
Before you make the joke, no, this is not the Jessica Alba disaster. The original Hong Kong-Singaporean movie was one of the first foreign movies I saw, and nearly 15 years later there are parts that freak me out. Asian horror in the 2000s was amazing in both the quality of the originals and the lack thereof, mostly, in their American remakes.
12) Modern Times
It’s almost impossible to go wrong with Charlie Chaplin, and this is one area Hulu really has you covered if you’re a neophyte. Start with Modern, or go with City Lights, The Great Dictator, or really anywhere. Chaplin is one of the all-time (maybe the all-time) great physical comedians and a true auteur.
It feels wrong to recommend a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie where he doesn’t just shred reams of bad guys, but here we are. Here JCVD plays a fictional version of himself that feels like it’s not far off from reality. This JCVD is a down-on-his-luck actor stuck in a custody battle. He ends up stuck in a bank robbery where he’s the main suspect and that’s all good and exciting, but the reason to watch this is for Van Damme’s performance. At one point he gives a six-minute monologue that feels like a man baring his soul, and it packs more punch than anything he’s done before or since.
14) I Ain’t Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie Mac
This documentary about the late, great Mac is an hour-long celebration of the man’s life and his art. This is film as comfort food. Listening to actors and comics go on about Mac's life and comedy is great, and a nice memento to a man who left us too soon.
15) Stingray Sam
This is one for people that want something off the beaten path. It’s a science-fiction musical told in six episodes. Clocking in at just one hour, the story of Stingray Sam and the Quasar Kid is utterly bizarre and a complete delight.
If Stingray Sam bought me any goodwill, I’d like to cash it in on this Greek black comedy by Yorgos Lanthimos. This is the most polarizing movie on the list and one that you really have to engage with. Lanthimos has concocted a story about over-protective parenting taken to its logical extreme that is as funny as it is disturbing.
17) Mystery Team
This is basically The Wire starring three wannabe Encyclopedia Browns. Written by and starring the Derrick Comedy troupe (Donald Glover, DC Pierson, Dominic Dierkes), it’s clearly the product of a generation brought up on The Simpsons and 30 Rock (for which Glover briefly wrote). The three leads play developmentally arrested youths still solving neighborhood crimes for 10 cents a pop. Of course they get wrapped up in a murder case and the result is hilarious.
18) The House of the Devil
Ti West is one of the best of the current crop of indie-horror directors. He specializes in atmospheric horror that builds to a hellacious payoff. This one is set in the ‘80s and has a great Reagan-era premise: A broke college student (the wonderful Jocelin Donaghue) takes a babysitting job and things go about as wrong as humanly possible.
19) The Voices
Ryan Reynolds is an interesting case study. He’s a reliably charming performer, but that reliability is only outdone by his questionable major movie choices (Green Lantern anyone?). He’s enjoying a resurgence with the success of Deadpool, but one thing he’s always done well is indie movies. They aren’t always good, but the roles are always interesting. The Voices is both good and interesting. Reynolds plays a man who suffers from the common affliction of hearing his pets talk to him. You know how it is.
20) They Came Together
A cult hero among the cult, David Wain’s trademark absurdity reaches new heights in this rom-com spoof, starring the most likable leading duo of the 21st century (Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd). Not a single genre trope is spared and there are so many jokes crammed into this movie that you need at least three, and probably more, viewings just to catch everything.
Correction: The Eye is a Hong Kong-Singaporean film.