How to watch: Rent from various outlets
Rat Film (2016, directed by Theo Anthony)
Theo Anthony’s Rat Film is a journalistic work that doubles as a dreamy collage, a story of a city that incorporates tragedy, comedy, and grim legacy. After a late-night encounter with a rodent stuck in his trash can, Anthony finds himself exploring Baltimore’s history of rat infestations, which ties into housing segregation, redlining, urban neglect, and the city’s long-lasting problems with systemic racism. Incorporating the perspectives of city officials, community activists, and neighbors, Anthony turns a nonfiction project into a portrait of the home he loves, full of praise and regret.
How to watch: Stream on Kanopy
Right Now, Wrong Then (2015, directed by Hong Sang-soo)
Your first encounter with the Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo is likely to be your most profound, since nobody makes movies like him. Each of his works is characterized by stripped-down visuals and naturalistic dialogue. My personal favorite, and one of Hong’s most quietly idiosyncratic efforts, is Right Now, Wrong Then, a romantic comedy that follows an art-house film director (Jung Jae-young) as he visits a new city, meets a woman (Kim Min-hee), and strikes up a conversation with her. The viewer sees things play out badly between them, but then the film stops, resets, and tells the same story again—with a different conclusion. There’s no explanation, no supernatural intervention; Hong’s just inviting the viewer to treat every interaction with care and fascination, and to see how the littlest moments can tip reality in unexpected directions.
How to watch: Stream on Hoopla and Kanopy
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010, directed by Edgar Wright)
The idea of a comic-book adaptation was hardly novel in 2010, but the energetic Edgar Wright invented whole new visual palettes in translating Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series, a masterpiece of postadolescent folly. The jokey concept of the books is that Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) boils every human conflict in his life down into a simplistic video game, a cartoon battle he can fight in lieu of having actual, mature conversations. So Wright makes every set piece a dizzying blur of neon streaks, pixelated graphics, and dramatic music; it’s the perfect lancing of every self-involved 20-something’s inflated opinion of their own problems. Plenty of modern action movies can do eye-popping work with CGI; Wright used that technology better than anyone to illustrate the inner workings of his protagonist.
How to watch: Stream on Netflix
Speed Racer (2008, directed by the Wachowskis)
No single movie had more influence than this one on the brightly colored, computer-generated action fantasies of the 2010s, which were dominated by superhero movies told on an unprecedented scale. And yet nothing has managed to ape the look of the Wachowskis’ living cartoon—a spine-tingling rendition of a classic piece of Japanese animation that cheerfully flouts every convention of visual storytelling. The best way to experience the movie is on the biggest screen possible, with a screaming audience that can barely process what they’re seeing, but the radical sincerity of the Wachowskis’ storytelling shines through even when Speed Racer is being viewed at home.
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