Though Netflix may be the most prominent name in original streaming movies in the modern pop culture landscape, Amazon Studios has also managed to leave an impressive footprint when it comes to its contributions to cinema. While recent years have seen Amazon Studios expand its output to include more mainstream-friendly fare like The Tomorrow War, most Amazon films have been challenging arthouse fare hailing from artists ranging from Todd Haynes to Richard Linklater to Asghar Farhadi.
Going this route means that Amazon has not always delivered widely viewed movies like a certain Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, but it has already resulted in an impressive library of features that push the boundaries of cinematic storytelling just as often as they challenge the people who watch them. The eleven best Amazon Studios releases, ranked from “worst” to best below, exemplify the unique creative energy of this streamer’s output that makes them unlike any other major platform in the ongoing streaming wars. This was apparent from the start, as seen by Amazon’s inaugural original film and the first title on this list…
Is Spike Lee’s 2015 movie Chi-Raq (the first Amazon Studios release ever) messy? For sure. But it’s also a deeply committed work packed with ambition, starting from the fact that all the dialogue is told in a rhyme scheme. It’s a bold choice, emblematic of the massive swings Lee takes in this project, which radiates with frustration at the ongoing woes of society that adversely affect America’s Black population. The ancient story of Lysistrata turns out to be a great basis to fixate a decidedly modern Spike Lee movie around. The production gets further enhanced by a star-making lead turn from Teyonah Parris, who fills up the screen with consistently engaging charisma. Warts, like a strange supporting turn from John Cusack, and all, Chi-Raq embodies the gusto spirit that makes Spike Lee such a fascinating filmmaker.
10. One Child Nation
For the documentary One Child Nation, Nanfu Wang (who directs the project alongside Jialing Zhang) tackles China’s former policy of restricting families to just one child. This entails returning to her home country of China, where Wang, who is now a mother herself, confronts and chronicles people who were directly impacted by the one-child policy. These individuals range from people who lost kids to folks haunted by how they were tasked with (and executed) removing and abandoning kids. There’s a deeply vulnerable and personal quality to Wang’s presence in One Child Nation, which extends to how she recalls that she used to blindly support this policy and the leaders who enacted it. The propaganda that once molded Wang’s perception of her homeland is now, in the modern world, sweeping the haunting aftereffects of this one-child policy under the rug. The excellently made feature One Child Nation shines a light on those lives and hardships, as well as drawing a fascinating parallel between China’s one-child policy and America’s restrictions on abortion warning Western viewers that limitations on women’s autonomy are not just contained to China.
9. Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea does not immediately clue the audience into what it’s about. The pervasive sadness tethered to the soul of Casey Affleck’s protagonist Lee Chandler is apparent from the get-go, but the specific circumstances informing that aching woe are kept under wraps. As Chandler and the audience follow Chandler’s teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) coping with the death of his father, the circumstances that have informed all this grief come bubbling to the surface. This is also where Lonergan’s screenplay reveals itself as an exploration of two separate tracks of grappling with grief. It all radiates with messy authenticity right down to the open ending that refuses to tie up a tidy bow on the proceedings. Manchester by the Sea is an achingly powerful work, one that can even make the sight of Hedges struggling to close a freezer something that can inspire tears.
8. Cold War
Director Pawel Pawlikowski‘s Best Director Oscar-nominated feature Cold War examines significant European events that took place in the aftermath of World War II but explores those circumstances through the lens of one couple. The scope of the story (which unfolds over 15 years) is expansive but by keeping things grounded on just the plight of two, Pawlikowski never loses sight of the intimate. The pervasively harrowing tone won’t be for all viewers, but those who can manage the bleak atmosphere of Cold War will find something special, particularly with the project’s cinematography. Filtering this story through a 1.37:1 aspect ratio creates a confined space that informs the most inspired visuals from Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal. There are so many images here you won’t be able to forget and the same can be said for the haunting tone of Cold War as a whole.
7. Honey Boy
In responding to allegations against Shia LaBeouf from FKA Twigs, which encompass allegations of sexual battery and assault, among other charges, Honey Boy director Alma Har’el stood alongside Twigs and all survivors of abuse while also noting gratitude towards survivors of abuse who were able to see themselves in Honey Boy. This 2019 film that LaBeouf wrote and starred in is a project that, very understandably, is not something one would be comfortable watching in 2021. However, the captivating work here from Har’el, lead actor Noah Jupe, and cinematographer Natasha Braier, among many others, lend an unflinchingly insightful quality to the project that exceeds LeBeouf. For those who can watch it, Honey Boy is an outstanding voyage into a damaged psyche.
As anyone who’s seen projects as varied as Four Lions and Nightcrawler can attest, Riz Ahmed has been delivering memorable film performances for basically his entire career. But it took Sound of Metal to get him some richly deserved Oscar love. This story about a drummer who begins to go deaf used both Ahmed’s gifts as a performer and masterful sound work to place the audience right into the protagonist’s headspace. Once this development is introduced, Sound of Metal goes to unexpected places narratively, particularly in depicting how Ahmed’s character’s addiction manifests in his new status quo. Sound of Metal is made all the more memorable by an outstanding supporting turn from Paul Raci, whose final scene is unspeakably heartbreaking. A story about coping with life’s inevitable sweeping changes, Sound of Metal is a fantastic feature as well as a remarkable showcase for Riz Ahmed as an actor.
Every second matters. That’s a phrase that lingers in the mind of Sibil Fox Richardson as she works day and night to get her husband, Rob, out of a 60-year prison stint. In between seeing footage of Sibil working dutifully to accomplish this mission, director Garrett Bradley fills the screen with home video footage of Rob playing with his kids, being attentive to Sibil, and just being a normal person. The documentary Time is a vital work restoring humanity to the human that America’s prison industrial complex reduces to just being bodies in cells. The raw emotion of the piece and the careful direction from Bradley make this a project as essential as it is richly captivating.
Jim Jarmusch’s relaxed style of filmmaking is in rare form here in capturing the everyday life of a bus driver in New Jersey. Paterson gradually introduces a variety of entertaining people (and one adorable bulldog) to the viewer, all told through the eyes of Adam Driver’s titular lead character. Come for Jarmusch’s signature brand of laidback observational directing, stay for Driver’s thoughtful performance that suggests so much emotion through subdued line deliveries and body language. Through the work of artists like these, Paterson becomes another Jarmusch gem that urges the viewer to recognize how much value there is in mundane parts of rudimentary existence.
3. The Handmaiden
Nothing is what it seems in The Handmaiden., Park Chan-wook’s exquisitely crafted thriller sees a conman’s scheme to use a lady pickpocket to screw over an heiress go anywhere but according to plan. The story has more twists and turns than a maze, while the lead performances of Kim Min-ree and Kim Tae-ri anchor the proceedings with rich humanity. A delightfully unpredictable journey with unabashedly queer sensibilities, The Handmaiden is Chan-wook in peak form, particularly in terms of the imagery he delivers. All those gorgeous costumes and ornate blocking ensure that The Handmaiden is just as delicately composed visually as it is narratively. Plus, as a cherry on top, one of its final scenes will keep your eyes more glued to an octopus than you ever thought possible.
2. I Am Not Your Negro
How fitting that one of the great American writers, James Baldwin, would get a similarly outstanding documentary made about his life. I Am Not Your Negro uses an unfinished manuscript by Baldwin as a springboard for explorations of relevant topics tied into the experiences of Black Americans. These include who gets to be defined as “heroes” in American cinema as well as societally ingrained forces that keep Black people weighed down in society.
Narrator Samuel L. Jackson reads aloud the words of Baldwin, talking about these topics not only to give the reader an appreciation for this man’s gift with the written word but to also see how his worldview is more urgently needed than ever. To make a retrospective on the life of Baldwin would’ve been enough to make for a great documentary. But director Raoul Peck goes the extra mile with I Am Not Your Negro in blending the past and the present to illustrate the eternally relevant nature of Baldwin.
1. You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsey has never shied away from making harrowing voyages into damaged psyches through masterworks like Ratcatcher or We Need to Talk about Kevin. For You Were Never Really Here, Ramsey takes this thematic motif to fascinating new places. In a transfixing tonal balance only a filmmaker this assured could pull off, You Were Never Really Here is simultaneously the darkest movie Ramsey’s ever made but also the only one that dares to end with a faint trace of hope.
Before that tonally intricate conclusion, though, Ramsey delivers a riveting drama that, among its other virtues, serves as a fascinating deconstruction of typical damaged male hero protagonists through the character of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix). His fractured internal psychology is illustrated through captivating cinematography and editing. No didactic dialogue is needed to convey the kinds of traumatic horrors he relives every day. Meanwhile, Ramsey’s trademark directorial flourish of leaving carnage almost entirely off-screen remains as powerful as ever. We’re treated to the aftermath of violence in You Were Never Really Here, of someone covered in blood rather than a bullet entering a man’s head. Throughout this story, Ramsey keeps conjuring up ingenious ways to emphasize visually the feature’s focus on people recovering from trauma.
A tremendous work of art from one of the best English-language filmmakers working today, You Were Never Really Here is so good that it’ll leave you wishing Joaquin Phoenix earned his first Academy Award win for this movie!
If you don’t want to wait for Paula Cole’s song to return, now you don’t have to.
About The Author