top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Black Bear,’ ‘Sharp Stick’ and more streaming gems

Aubrey Plaza in “Black Bear,” a scorching portrait of psychosexual one-upmanship from the writer and director Lawrence Michael Levine.

By Jason Bailey

This month’s suggestions for the hidden gems of your subscription streaming services cut a wide swath of genres and styles, including a piercing psychological thriller, a moody marital drama and a buck-wild sex comedy, with a handful of first-rate documentaries to keep you anchored in reality.

‘Black Bear’ (2020)

When Aubrey Plaza arrived on the scene more than a decade ago, her bone-dry wit, acerbic delivery and MVP supporting turns in comic films and television suggested the second coming of Janeane Garofalo. But her electrifying dramatic work over the past few years — on “The White Lotus,” in “Emily the Criminal” and in this scorching portrait of psychosexual one-upmanship from writer and director Lawrence Michael Levine — suggests something closer to Gena Rowlands. The wildly unpredictable psychological drama begins as a love triangle, with Plaza as an actor-turned-filmmaker on a remote retreat with a married couple (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon, both excellent). Over the course of a long night, the trio flirt, hint and accuse, rearranging and regrouping their allegiances, until … well, then it goes somewhere else entirely, grippingly blurring the lines between life, art and their respective commentaries.

Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

‘Take This Waltz’ (2012)

Director Sarah Polley has been running the awards gauntlet for her latest film “Women Talking.” On Twitter, she took a moment to winkingly, winningly note the debt owed her by one of her competitors, requesting “that Steven Spielberg return my cast from ‘Take This Waltz.’” And “The Fabelmans” co-stars Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen are marvelous in Polley’s sophomore outing, as Margot and Lou, an easy-breezy couple whose comfortable marriage is drawn into doubt when Margot is suddenly thunderstruck by her attraction to a new neighbor (understandably, as he’s played by Luke Kirby). Polley masterfully takes what could have been a weepy melodrama or a scolding screed and turns it into a nuanced and probing meditation on what it truly means to be faithful.

Stream it on HBO Max.

‘Sharp Stick’ (2022)

Lena Dunham’s 2022 was a study in contrasts, with two night-and-day feature films to contemplate: her Amazon original “Catherine Called Birdy,” which seemed to challenge the very notion of who Dunham is and what she does, and the indie comedy-drama “Sharp Stick,” which took those notions into new and provocative territory. Her focus is Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a 26-year-old nanny who, rather ill-advisedly, discards her virginity with the scuzzy burnout father (Jon Bernthal) who employs her. Dunham’s knack for writing amusingly self-destructive women and dopey men remains intact, and her own turn as the mother caught in the middle is as thorny and complicated as the movie surrounding it.

Stream it on Hulu.

‘Cosmopolis’ (2012)

The mixed reception that greeted Noah Baumbach’s recent film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” served as another reminder that there seems something uniquely tricky about turning the author’s thematically and historically dense works into quicksilver cinema. But in 2012 director David Cronenberg was up to the challenge with “Cosmopolis,” turning DeLillo’s chronicle of a day in the life of a young billionaire into a snapshot of self-destruction in the Occupy era, while Robert Pattinson makes a particularly effective DeLillo protagonist, all cold surfaces and questionable motives.

Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

‘The Monster’ (2016)

Bryan Bertino’s tight, compact thriller finds a fiercely independent tween girl (Ella Ballentine) and her alcoholic mother (Zoe Kazan) on a long, tough drive through the lonely night — and then stranded in their car, wrecked while swerving to avoid a wolf on the road. But that wolf was trying to escape from another animal, and the women soon supplant the wolf as its prey. That sounds simple enough, but that’s also not all Bertino is up to; the picture’s intricate and ingenious flashback structure makes it increasingly clear that these two are perfectly capable of being just as monstrous to each other.

Stream it on HBO Max.

‘The Pez Outlaw’ (2022)

Amy Bandlien Storkel and Bryan Storkel’s documentary tells the story of Steve Glew, a collector, seller and smuggler of Pez candy dispensers — or, more accurately, Glew tells the story himself, not only narrating his tale with cheerful comic vigor, but starring in the documentary’s energetically stylized dramatizations of his various heists and high jinks. That irreverent approach is the right one for this low-stakes story, which takes the tools of the increasingly ubiquitous Netflix true crime documentary and exposes them as ridiculous.

Stream it on Netflix.

‘Leave No Trace’ (2022)

When the Boy Scouts filed for bankruptcy in February 2020, it was one of many national stories that quickly receded to the background in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of claims of sexual abuse finally came to light, ultimately surpassing 82,000 accusers. Irene Taylor’s documentary details the history of the organization, and its pattern of protecting accused pedophiles in its midst (all the while ostracizing gay Scouts and Scoutmasters as dangers to children). Taylor assembles an anatomy of a conspiracy, detailing exactly how these secrets were kept so safe for so long, all while tracking down survivors from around the country to hear their stories. It’s a troubling, infuriating piece of work, assembled with a delicate mixture of righteous indignation and necessary sensitivity.

Stream it on Hulu.

‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’ (2021)

Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary is not, it should be noted, a traditional biographical portrait of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, and thank goodness, as there have been plenty of those. Instead, the filmmakers examine the long, strange, fascinating history of the title song — now easily his most recognizable composition, deployed in media of all kinds, covered by every artist worth their stripe, but initially a forgotten track on a poorly selling album. That odyssey, from ignored to iconic, is an inherently dramatic one, and Gellar and Goldfine bring it to life with panache, all while acknowledging that Cohen’s particular passion made its very inception something akin to musical magic.

Stream it on Netflix.

21 views0 comments


bottom of page