(Note: This article originally appeared here.)
Netflix’s slate of May releases includes plenty of well-known crowd pleasers (Amelie, Shrek, Coco, The Bourne Ultimatum). If you’re looking for something off the beaten path, however, here are some other films you ought to check out this month:
God’s Own Country (2017; out May 1)
Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country tells the story of Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a gay 20-something who lives with his father (Ian Hart) and grandmother (Gemma Jones) on a farm in northern England. When we first meet him, Johnny has a lifestyle that’s nothing if not monotonous: he works by day, drinks hard by night, and engages in unfulfilling one-night stands every now and then. But everything changes when he meets Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker who arrives to help Johnny’s family get through lambing season.
On the surface, God’s might remind you of Brokeback Mountain, another film about gay men in a rural setting. But don’t be fooled. Francis Lee’s portrayal of emotional repression is far more attuned to repression’s debilitating effects than Ang Lee’s. And while Brokeback ultimately gets mired in traditional, “LGBT stories must end tragically” tropes, God’s succeeds in providing uplift without ever feeling cheesy. Even if God’s isn’t the best LGBT-themed movie to come out in recent years—that honor would have to go to Carol, Moonlight, or Call Me by Your Name—O’Connor and Secareanu’s performances offer more than enough good reasons to watch this subtle, shamefully under-appreciated addition to the genre.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
In Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play of the same name, an English lawyer named Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) agrees to take on a murder case. The problem? All the evidence suggests that his client (Tyrone Power) is guilty. And as if that weren’t enough of an issue, Wilfrid himself still hasn’t fully recovered from a devastating heart attack.
The courtroom drama that Wilder weaves out of this premise hardly represents his finest work; it lacks the satirical bite of Sunset Blvd. and The Apartment, and you’ll probably cringe at its frequent use of dated gender stereotypes. Still, the arresting performances—aside from Laughton, watch for Marlene Dietrich as the accused’s wife—ensure that the movie remains riveting throughout. And if you want to know why people called Christie the “Queen of Crime,” just wait for the film’s last ten minutes.
Beauty and the Beast (1946)
If you’re familiar with Disney’s two movie versions of Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of the fairy tale will initially come as quite a shock. There are no flirtatious candelabras, arrogant hunter-suitors, or vicious wolves. Instead of being an absent-minded inventor, Belle’s father (Marcel André) is a vaguely incestuous merchant who falls ill after losing all his money. And Belle (Josette Day) is no longer an only child; rather, she has to contend with Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon), two older sisters who make Anastasia and Drizella look like saints.
In an era when CGI has become ubiquitous, Cocteau’s work might seem laughably archaic. Yet in reality, much of it—Jean Marais’ brooding portrayal of the Beast, Cocteau’s hilarious takedown of Félicie and Adélaïde’s vanity—remains emotionally resonant. And at its core, the movie stands as a poignant tribute to the “cinema of attractions,” an era when films existed for the sole purpose of providing pure, unabashedly artificial visual spectacle. Roger Ebert was onto something when he deemed this “one of the most magical of all films.”
Journey to Italy (1954)
In Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders play Katherine and Alex, a married English couple on vacation in Naples. Throughout their trip, the weather is never anything short of perfect, and there are more than enough tourist attractions to keep them busy. But in the end, none of that can help against the couple’s unexpected discovery that (to quote Alex) “after eight years of marriage, it seems like we don’t know anything about each other.”
If Journey were a traditional Hollywood film, this bombshell revelation would come in the wake of some concrete event—an affair, for example, or an insult—and Alex and Katherine would eventually work their way towards a lasting reconciliation. In reality, however, Journey turns out to be something much different: a compelling, narrative-averse portrait of ennui whose existentialist overtones would inspire later filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni. Rossellini’s work ultimately illustrates a quintessentially modern relationship problem—the fact, namely, that you don’t need a specific reason to feel that something is off between you and your partner. And if you’re historically inclined, the film also offers a look at the physical and spiritual devastation that World War II wreaked on Europe.
NOTE: You can watch Journey to Italy for free via YouTube here.
At the start of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, Tony (Jean Servais), a gangster who goes by “Le Stéphanois,” has just been released from prison. Yet freedom only gives him reasons to complain: he can’t land a job, and his lover (Marie Sabouret) has left him for someone else. So with the aid of three accomplices (Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Dassin himself), Tony decides to plan a jewel heist—even though jewelry theft was the very reason he was previously sentenced to prison.
Some six decades after its release, Rififi remains a tour de force on every level. Its characterization of Tony, for starters, neatly anticipated the malaise-stricken protagonists of many French New Wave films—and Dassin’s depiction of modern society carries a disenchantment that harks right back to Fritz Lang’s M. Yet even now, the biggest reason to see Rififi is its thrills. The movie’s centerpiece, a 30-minute break-in sequence that features no music or dialogue, still offers a master class in suspense, and its influence can easily be seen in just about every heist film made since the late ’50s (The Killing, Reservoir Dogs, Ocean’s Eleven…). All told, the usual superlatives simply can’t do justice to this movie’s remarkable elegance and power.
Of Gods and Men (2010)
Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men follows a group of French monks who reside in an isolated Algerian monastery. At first glance, their existence appears nothing short of idyllic—we watch as they spend entire days doing nothing more than gardening, praying, and reading. But one Christmas evening, their peaceful lifestyle is irrevocably shattered when a gang of Islamic fundamentalists shows up on their doorstep.
Eight years after winning second prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Beauvois’ depiction of interreligious conflict still provides an admirably nuanced meditation on tolerance, brotherhood, and the relationship between faith and doubt. You may find yourself frustrated at the way Beauvois skirts around the fraught details of French-Algerian history. But his camerawork skillfully captures both the austerity of the monastic lifestyle and the fragility that that austerity conceals. And if nothing else, the actors he’s rounded up all offer moving depictions of their characters’ helpless humanity.