As 2023 comes to a close, our monthly showcase of hidden gems on your streaming subscription services showcases a handful of worthwhile releases from this year that may have escaped your notice: character-driven dramas, dark comedies, smart documentaries, and romantic comedies both sunny and disturbing.
‘A Thousand and One’
The writer and director A.V. Rockwell begins this wrenching character drama in New York City circa 1994, and nicely recaptures the look and feel of Gotham indies of that era. But that’s not just window dressing, While ostensibly telling the story of a young woman trying to go straight after a stint at Rikers Island and raise her son, Rockwell folds in relevant reminders of the city’s history in the intervening years and adroitly incorporates them into her characters and their ongoing struggle, reminding us that “quality of life” policing and the dirty business of gentrification are never purely policy issues. Yet it’s more than just a polemic; Teyana Taylor is shattering as the mother in question, Josiah Cross is charismatic and sympathetic as her teenage son, and the revelations of the closing scenes are wrenching and powerful.
A sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the debut feature from the director Raine Allen-Miller is a zippily paced and endlessly satisfying compressed-timeframe romantic comedy (think “Before Sunrise” and its follow-ups) with a delightfully of-the-moment voice and feel. Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oparah) meet-cute in an art gallery bathroom; he’s crying in a stall over a fresh breakup, and she’s nursing a broken heart as well (albeit more quietly), and they wind up spending a few whirlwind hours baring their souls and helping each other settle their romantic scores. It’s a venerable setup, rendered with vibrancy and inventiveness by Allen-Miller, and the screenplay by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia is full of witty, quotable dialogue. But the whole thing would fall apart without the bulletproof chemistry of Jonsson and Oparah; you want them to end up together so much, and that’s half the work of a great rom-com.
‘Rotting in the Sun’
Another Sundance breakout, this pitch-black comedy finds the director Sebastián Silva also starring as himself — or rather, a depressed and suicidal version of himself. After nearly drowning at a gay nude beach, Sebastián meets a charismatic but insufferable American influencer, Jordan Firstman (playing himself, and admirably game about it), who tries to engage him in a collaboration. What follows is both psychologically bruising and uncomfortably funny, while posing thought-provoking questions about guilt, privilege and the omnipresence of social media. Most impressively, it reminds us that L.G.B.T.Q. stories don’t have to be about positive representation; Silva allows his queer characters the complexity to be as annoying, difficult and exploitative as his story requires.
Pablo Larraín, the director behind “Jackie” and “Spencer,” cooks up his most unconventional riff on the biopic yet with this stylized hybrid of dark comedy, social commentary and gore-heavy horror. The premise is delicious, positing that the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) was, in fact, a literal vampire who faked his own death and went into hiding in the country. The razor-sharp script, by Larraín and the Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón, ruminates on the parasitic nature of capitalism, wit and intelligence, and the cleverness of the narration (which not only tells the story but wryly comments on it) is topped only by the reveal of who is voicing it. Ed Lachman’s black-and-white cinematography stuns, and Larraín injects the proceedings with genre thrills and bleak laughs.
Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott both make brief but impactful appearances in “Poor Things,” one of the awards favorites of the season; viewers who enjoy that cockeyed meditation on sexual mores will find themselves equally fascinated by the duo’s provocative spring two-hander. Abbott stars as Hal, the wealthy scion of a luxury hotelier who is about to take over as the company’s chief executive; Qualley is Rebecca, who first appears to be interviewing him for the job, but is gradually revealed to be his longtime dominatrix, acting out a scene of his own creation. Their tricky psychosexual exchanges, a complex series of shifting power plays and deeply embedded desires, make for situations both highly dramatic and unabashedly erotic — the kind of movie for grown-ups it feels like they never make anymore, until they do.
The title, for those not in the know, refers to a subgenre of exploitation movies prompted by the earthshaking success of “Jaws”— increasingly silly and derivative stories of shark attacks, grizzled sailors, frustrated scientists, corrupt politicians and swimsuit-clad human sacrifices. Stephen Scarlata’s giddily entertaining documentary tracks the evolution of these pictures, from the direct rip-offs of the ’70s and ’80s to their utterly insane contemporary counterparts, the cheapo disaster hybrids of the “Sharknado” ilk. But it also drills deeper, running down the history of sharks in fiction in general, as well as the (often negative) effects these works have had on the public perception of these much-maligned animals.
‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’
The latest effort from the accomplished documentary filmmakers Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor combines a distinct nonfiction film style — the fly-on-the-wall institutional portrait, most frequently identified with Frederick Wiseman, focusing on a French hospital — and a more experimental approach, utilizing specialized cameras to explore the interiors of the human body during medical procedures. The latter footage, while not for the squeamish, is fascinating, taking a detached and almost fantastical view of our organs and orifices that’s akin to the landscapes of phantasmagorical science fiction. But the straightforward documentary sections are equally transfixing, forgoing talking head interviews for overheard conversations and operating room chitchat (“This guy’s weirdly put together!”), and capturing moments of staggeringly raw emotion and vulnerability.