(Note: This article originally appeared here.)
Netflix’s slate of April releases contains a fair number of acknowledged classics, including Se7en, Scarface, and Life is Beautiful. If you’ve seen all those films already, however, here are some lesser-known (but equally deserving) works you can watch instead:
The Iron Giant (1999; out April 1)
Before winning Oscars for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Brad Bird first showed off his animation chops in The Iron Giant, a film about a giant alien robot that lands on Earth and befriends a young boy (Eli Marienthal) in the aftermath of Sputnik’s launch. Fans of E.T. will probably find Giant’s narrative too familiar for comfort. But the film’s villain (Christopher McDonald) is hilarious to watch; moreover, Bird’s penchant for false endings always keeps the story engaging. And unlike many animated movies, Giant is hardly just for kids: its pacifist ethic would leave Hayao Miyazaki beaming, and any adult will be able to appreciate Bird’s stirring condemnation of Cold War jingoism.
Night and Fog (1956)
At just 32 minutes, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog is far shorter than many movies about the Holocaust (e.g. Schindler’s List). But its brevity belies its unique emotional power. Films like Schindler’s List depict their protagonists’ pain in grisly, unflinching detail, to the point that they might feel emotionally manipulative. Conversely, the sobering, refreshingly honest thesis of Resnais’ film is that no work of art can truly convey the magnitude of the suffering Jews faced. And whereas a movie like Schindler’s List might leave you convinced that the Holocaust was a tragic anomaly, Resnais makes it clear that Hitler’s brand of genocide could happen just about anywhere. Small wonder the German government initially tried to block this film’s release: even today, its condemnation of historical amnesia remains discomfiting, provocative, and absolutely necessary.
See it for: Sam Gabarski’s Bye Bye Germany follows a Jewish peddler who chooses to remain in Germany after the end of World War II; screens at the Siskel Film Center on April 1 at 3:00 PM.
La Grande Illusion (1937)
At the start of La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir’s tragicomic depiction of World War I, two French pilots (Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin) are captured by the German Army. Watching their subsequent attempts to plan a jailbreak would be entertaining enough on its own. But Renoir eventually gives their story a deeper resonance, turning the film into a piercing examination of the way class differences can twist and blur nationalist sentiments. Even if parts of Grande ultimately feel a tad soppy, it still makes a powerful plea for humanity and intercultural understanding – and in light of what happened just two years after its release, the movie’s depiction of an era before the rise of total war carries ironic poignancy.
See it for: A real-life prison escape is the subject of Stephen Burke’s Maze. Catch it at the Siskel Film Center on April 1 at 5:15 PM.
Films of Andrew Haigh: Weekend (2011) + 45 Years (2015)
In 2011, Andrew Haigh revolutionized the LGBT genre with Weekend, a movie about two gay men (Tom Cullen, Chris New) who have a life-changing three-day fling. Four years later, Haigh directed Charlotte Rampling to her first (and only) Oscar nomination in 45 Years, a film about a couple (Rampling, Tom Courtenay) whose marriage cracks on the eve of their 45th anniversary. Taken together, the two works offer a subtle, probing study of the ways in which traditional conceptions of interpersonal relationships have either changed or died out completely. And in both films, Haigh chronicles the drama of everyday life with an elegance that puts Richard Linklater to shame.
See it for: Haigh’s latest film, Lean on Pete, tells the story of a boy who befriends an old racehorse. It’ll be in theaters on April 13. 45 Years is available on Netflix.
Le Samourai (1967)
Some 50 years after its premiere, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai remains one of the most exquisite thrillers ever made. That’s partially thanks to Alain Delon, whose portrayal of the film’s stoic hitman protagonist is the epitome of cool. (And, for that matter, infinitely superior to Ryan Gosling’s copycat performance in Drive.) But more importantly, at a time when action has become a synonym for sensory overload, Melville proves that you don’t need loud music, fancy effects, or cheesy dialogue to create an unrelenting feeling of suspense. Plus, the film’s moral ambiguity—suffice to say, the police do not come off looking good—also provides a welcome antidote to conventional notions of good and evil.
See it for: In Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lone-wolf hitman who faces down corrupt politicians and policemen alike. The film won two awards at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’ll be in theaters on April 13.
Imitation of Life (1959)
Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life tells the story of two single mothers. The first (Lana Turner) is an aspiring actress who has to put up with being treated as a sex object. The second (Juanita Moore), meanwhile, is black, and her light-skinned daughter (Susan Kohner) consequently refuses to have anything to do with her. Sirk’s unabashed embrace of melodrama—emotional meltdowns, lush background music and all—initially met with nothing but scorn from reviewers. But in reality, the film’s schmaltzy façade belies its remarkably biting portrayal of racism, sexism, and society’s willingness to deny that these problems even exist. Ultimately, few movies do a better job capturing the zeitgeist of the ’50s, a decade when things always looked prettier than they actually were.
See it for: A single mom is also the protagonist of Tully, the latest film from Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult). It’ll be in theaters on April 20.