Make the most of your Amazon Prime membership.
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 Prime in May 2017
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) Before Sunrise
The Before trilogy is one of the best in all of American cinema. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are strangers who make the most of a chance encounter on a train and turn it into a night neither will ever forget. Hawke and Delpy have the kind of chemistry that just makes you happy to watch them together, whether they’re casually strolling down a riverwalk or having deep philosophical conversations. Like the best relationships, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be when you’re with Jesse and Celine. Director Richard Linklater has a knack for taking everyday occurrences and turning them into movie magic. It’s a miracle that Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke were able to make one movie this romantic and honest, let alone two others. Take the plunge; you won’t regret it.
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) Swiss Army Man
It’s a damn shame that so few people saw this movie in theaters. The premise is kitschy enough that most people dismissed it outright, but now that Swiss Army Man is streaming, hopefully it will find the audience it deserves. It’s about a man (Paul Dano) and the dead body he befriends (Daniel Radcliffe). The friendship that blossoms between the two is hilarious, charming, and far more emotionally involving than you expect. The story is laced with enough juvenile humor to appeal to the inner kid in everyone, but the ace in the hole is its highly affecting emotional drama. The movie is a celebration of life anchored by truly great performances from Dano and Radcliffe.
5) The One I Love
This low-key sci-fi mindbender focuses on a couple (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass) getting more than they bargained for during a weekend getaway. Moss and Duplass come across clones of themselves, and the more they interact with their alternates, the less stable their relationship becomes. As the twists and confusion increase, the emotional stakes rise and become more intriguing. It’s the kind of movie that would have coasted on its cool concept in lesser hands, but McDowell and writer Justin Lader, with a stellar cast, concocted something that will linger after it’s over. If you’re a fan of Shane Carruth’s high-brow mindbenders, make some time for Charlie McDowell’s directorial debut.
6) Punch-Drunk Love
Between this film and Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Adam Sandler has delivered two performances that deconstruct the comic persona honed on Saturday Night Live and his ‘90s comedies. For Paul Thomas Anderson, Sandler plays Barry Egan, a socially awkward man prone to violent outbursts. A chance encounter with a woman in need of a favor (a terrific Emily Watson) helps bring Barry out of his shell. Anderson mixes the dark and absurd parts of the film with humor in that way only he can, and the result is pretty special.
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.
Kirsten Johnson is a career cinematographer who worked on many documentaries including 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 puts Johnson under the microscope as much as it does her subjects. Much of Johnson’s work covers areas of the world that have, or currently are, experiencing harrowing traumas, but the film captures many of the quieter moments that remind us of the goodness we’re capable of. Johnson mixes in home videos that show her mom as her health deteriorates. It’s a reminder that we all have a story worth sharing and that we’re all connected in one way or another.
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.
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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) The Handmaiden
If you haven’t seen it yet, stop everything you’re doing and spend the next two-and-a-half hours in Park Chan-wook’s exhilarating The Handmaiden. The movie is chock full of twists and role-reversals and is so much fun that mentioning any story specifics would be unfair. Chan-wook is one of the world’s most entertaining directors, and The Handmaiden is arguably one of his best. Everything that makes him great is on display here, from the dizzying tonal shifts to the luscious photography, and idiosyncratic indulgences.
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.
21) What We Do in the Shadows
This is one of the funniest movies of the last few years and it deserves a much larger fanbase than the small and passionate one it has now. Co-written and co-directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, this New Zealand set romp follows the daily lives of a quartet of vampires. Shot mockumentary style, the movie is packed to the fangs with so many jokes that it makes repeat viewings a necessity. Whether hunting for prey, fighting with werewolves, or reuniting with old loves, Waititi and Clement have crafted a pitch perfect comedy that riffs on well-known mythology and newly created lore with an equally cleverness.
22) The Fits
The Fits is an evocative coming-of-age story. Newcomer Royalty Hightower enters the pantheon of great child performances with her work as Toni, a girl on the cusp of puberty and trying to make it onto a dance team filled with older, more (apparently) self-assured girls. Making matters worse is the titular affliction that befalls members of the team. The atmosphere is intoxicating, and at a lean 75-minute runtime, The Fits is an ideal choice for someone looking for something new. First time director Anna Rose Holmer makes a strong impression and establishes herself as one of American cinema’s exciting new voices.
23) Son of Rambow
If you’re in the mood for a movie that will slap a smile on your face and keep in there for two hours, then Son of Rambow is the only choice. It’s about two boys, Will and Lee, who aim to make their own version of Rambo. The boys find something they’ve been missing in both their unlikely friendship and their filmmaking. The film may fall victim to formula occasionally, but the film’s charm and sincerity elevate it to a level where any shortcomings are easy to forgive.
24) Big Fan
To anyone who thinks they or someone they know has an unhealthy obsession with sports, I humbly submit Robert Siegel’s Big Fan. Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler, made his directorial debut with this story about a lonely guy and his toxic fandom. That guy is played by Patton Oswalt, who excels as a dramatic actor. Big Fan is the kind of movie where you might think you’re better than the characters, but by the end, you’re completely sucked into their world. You’ll either realize you have a problem or be thankful that you’re not like Oswalt’s character, but either way you’ll be glad you watched Big Fan.
25) Knight of Cups
Terence Malick’s films used to have legendary gestation periods, but since Tree of Life came out in 2011, the renowned reclusive director has been churning out movies, with three features and a documentary through 2017. Knight of Cups received an unusually negative reaction despite having its notable champions. Regardless, Malick movies are essential viewing for cinephiles and are worth reckoning with, whether you like them or not. The meandering plot, about a writer doing some soul searching, is a total cliché, but plot is not important in Malick movies. What is important is the experience and being provoked and engaged.
26) Green Room
If you liked Blue Ruin, you should check out writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s followup, Green Room. A punk band, led by the late Anton Yelchin, stumbles across something they shouldn’t see and end up trapped in a venue in the middle of nowhere. Did I mention that the club is run by neo-Nazis? Well, it is, and the Nazis are led by Patrick Stewart. The band has to fight its way out, and that’s about it for plot summary. The movie is violent and incredibly tense, and the filmmaking and storytelling is as lean, muscular, and vicious as an attack dog.
We’ve all seen enough “family comes together for a holiday and their problems get aired out” movies to know what to expect, but Krisha overcomes expectations to be a worthy entry to the genre. First-time filmmaker Trey Edward Shults focuses his story on the grandmother, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), a woman whose substance-abuse issues keeps the whole family on edge. The power of the movie comes primarily from Fairchild, who plays Krisha with a ferocity that is hard to look away from.
28) The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn’s movies are not for everyone. He makes aggressive, confrontational films that practically dare you to turn them off. But he’s too skilled a craftsman to completely dismiss outright. The Neon Demon is about a young woman (Elle Fanning) breaking into and ascending the ranks in the L.A. modeling world. The movie is a treatise on the male gaze, the perceived vapidity of models, and the dog-eat-dog nature of the industry—or at least the version of the industry depicted here. The good thing about Refn and The Neon Demon is that you’ll know within the first few minutes of the movie if it’s something you want to see.
29) The Love Witch
The Love Witch is the kind of movie that many people will dismiss as an homage to an era and genre of film long gone, but it’s more than that. Beyond the bright colors, intentionally stilted line readings, and incredible set decoration lies a movie that engages with thorny ideas about gender roles and relationship dynamics. Written and directed by Anna Biller (who also handled producing, scoring, editing and art design duties), The Love Witch is about a woman using spells and magic to make men fall in love with her, with deadly consequences.
30) The End of the Tour
Many people expected the worst from The End of the Tour, but those who gave the film a shot had those fears alleviated. Jason Segel gives his strongest performance to date as literary icon David Foster Wallace. He’s vulnerable and reserved, and he uses his physicality to create an interesting juxtaposition. The film covers the interview Wallace did with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Segel and Eisenberg play off each other well and are an engaging duo on screen. The film does justice to its source material and is a textbook example of not judging a book by its cover.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
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