If you’re looking for a break from December’s flurry of holiday content, Hulu can help. It offers a robust selection of recent critical hits—including a handful of films that have featured on The A.V. Club’s best-of lists—and crowd-pleasing favorites. Think of it as counter-programming for the Christmas averse. (By the way, Hulu has its own selection of holiday movies, but we’ll cover that elsewhere.) Here are 10 of the best non-holiday films to be found on the streaming service during the month.
Fifty years after Steven Spielberg made a whole nation afraid to go in the water, sharks still prowl the summer movie season. This is, in fact, the fourth consecutive year that a descendent of Jaws will descend upon multiplexes during the warmest season—next month brings the gnashing teeth and ominous fins of a 47 Meters Down sequel. But flesh-eating fish don’t have a monopoly on the aquatic horror business. Crawl, which shimmies ravenously into theaters today, invites a less represented but arguably just as deadly predator to the summer feeding frenzy: the mighty alligator, cold-blooded killing machine of the bayou and the scourge of riverboat gamblers everywhere. If the log-like reptilian menace doesn’t gnaw on the public’s nerves as consistently as the shark does, this no-frills, claustrophobic creature feature suggests that maybe it should. After all, it’s not like a Great White can follow you onto dry land. [A.A. Dowd]
The cartoonist and graphic novelist Dash Shaw made an impressive transition to animated feature filmmaking with My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, a combination disaster picture and teen comedy that had the endearingly lo-fi look and counterculture sensibility of an Adult Swim series. The movie was undeniably and entertainingly offbeat. But it never ranged too far beyond a few familiar pop sub-genres.
On the other hand, Shaw’s follow-up film, Cryptozoo, is very much its own animal, so to speak. Set in an alternate version of late-1960s America, the film follows Lauren Grey (voiced by Lake Bell), a veterinarian who has dedicated her life to the protection and preservation of exotic mythological beasts, ever since she had an encounter as a child with an odd-looking elephant-like creature called a “baku,” which eats nightmares. While shadowy agencies hunt unicorns, griffins, and their ilk for the purposes of exploitation and research, Lauren and her benefactor, Joan (Grace Zabriskie), plan to invite the world to visit these wonders at a fanciful, Disney-esque amusement park. [Noel Murray]
Days Of Heaven
Shot by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, Days Of Heaven remains one of the most shockingly beautiful films ever made, but the pictures only tell part of the story. [Co-star Linda] Manz narrates, alternating between childlike observations about the characters, fears of a looming apocalypse, and hopes for the future. She’s an innocent trying to understand sin and death as if she’s never considered them before, and remarkably, the film somehow makes her our surrogate, and makes all she sees of good and evil glow beneath the light of an unforgiving sun. [Keith Phipps]
Hell Or High Water
Hell Or High Water is the kind of movie that makes you fall in love again with the lost art of dialogue, getting you hooked anew on the snap of flavorful conversation. Whenever one of its characters opens their mouth, you’re reminded of how flatly expositional or distractingly florid so much movie dialogue is, even (or perhaps especially) when it’s aiming for the wiseguy patter of Tarantino or Mamet. But in Hell Or High Water, everyone speaks with a plainspoken wit that provides even the most functional of scenes—say, an interview with a bank teller who’s recently been robbed—a charge of pleasure. “Black or white?” asks the officer investigating. “Their skins or their souls?” the victim retorts. These are cops, robbers, and struggling wage slaves, not poets or philosophers. But they all have a way with words, and hearing them exercise it is like guzzling a gallon of water in the desert. [A.A. Dowd]
In Her Smell, the unfortunately named new drama from Alex Ross Perry, Elisabeth Moss does something you almost never see in movies about rock ’n’ roll: She sucks all the cool—all the sexiness, all the glamour, all the romance—out of a downward spiral into debauchery. Her character, Becky Something, is the frontwoman of a grunge-rock trio (think L7) that’s slowly inching out of multi-platinum success. When we first meet Becky, it’s at the mic, where she’s still a star, basking in adoration, elating a crowd of faithful fans with a salty-sweet riot-grrrl anthem. This is, as it turns out, a fleeting mirage of charisma. Because from the moment she walks out of the spotlight, we see the real Becky, the one her colleagues and handlers see, the alcoholic diva on the warpath. And Moss attacks the role with a fearless lack of vanity, daring to make this nosediving rock star not just unlikable but downright irritating—as hard to endure as chipped nails dragging slowly down a chalkboard ...
With Her Smell, Perry offers the Mad Men alum her meatiest starring role yet, and she sinks her teeth into it hard. Staring out from furious black holes of eyeshadow, her face twisted into a glitter-caked sneer, the actor plays Becky as a tornado of intoxicated hostility, fixing always for a fight. At the same time, there’s an element of performance to her rampages: the rhyming, the alliterating, the insults hurled in a mocking sing-song cadence. Are the drugs and booze talking, or is Becky putting on a show even off the stage? We could be watching Gena Rowlands play Courtney Love in an alternate-universe biopic. [A.A. Dowd]
Dorothy (Constance Wu) makes her living as an exotic dancer, climbing into the laps of Wall Street types and seducing them into buying plenty of drinks—and leaving plenty of tips—under her alias of Destiny. But Hustlers writer-director Lorene Scafaria is interested in a different sort of intimacy: Her camera seems to capture just about every time Destiny touches hands with her more experienced co-worker Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Hustlers isn’t a love story, not even a platonic one. But Destiny is still starved for affection, connection, or any form of non-transactional contact, really. So she’s especially receptive to being taken under Ramona’s wing—or, in this case, her fur coat, under which the two women huddle during a rooftop smoke break. [Jesse Hassenger]
The Princess Bride
Those who are only familiar with The Princess Bride through Rob Reiner’s beloved family film may be surprised to learn that translating the source material was difficult, even though author William Goldman was adapting his own work. Goldman ... not only had to capture the delicate whimsy of his book’s central story, a playfully teasing adventure yarn, but deal with the sophisticated literary device he had used to develop his themes. Remove the device and the entire story takes on less resonance; the book is about storytelling, not just the story being told. [Ryan Vlastelica]
The Social Network
When The Social Network was released in 2010, some questioned whether David Fincher’s film was being too hard on poor Mark Zuckerberg. Nine years later, as Facebook’s true (and truly alarming) potential to undermine democracy is finally under discussion, it seems the real question is whether the movie was harsh enough. It certainly turned out to be prescient: As well as warning against putting too much power in the hands of the petty and vindictive, The Social Network also diagnosed the bitterly misogynist, perpetually aggrieved cancer metastasizing throughout nerd-bro tech culture while most observers were still in the thrall of millennial techno-utopianism. In retrospect, the film also turned out to be a clearing house for young actors whose careers were at a turning point in 2010, including Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, and Rooney Mara, who would go from supporting character to star in Fincher’s next film, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. (Speaking of transitions, the film was also the first to feature a full score from Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor.) One thing about The Social Network that hasn’t changed is the remarkable skill with which Fincher spins suspense out of abstract ones and zeroes, even if Aaron Sorkin’s snappy dialogue doesn’t feel as fresh as it used to. [Katie Rife]
Thinking about the devastation AIDS brought upon the LGBTQ+ community can be overwhelming. An entire generation’s worth of experiences, expertise, creativity, insight, love, life—just gone. And yet, those who survived refused to dim their shine. This bittersweet thought hangs in the background of Swan Song, writer-director Todd Stephens’ elegiac ode to the gay elders who made it possible for younger generations to live openly and proudly. But while the appreciation Stephens has for these pioneers is touching—the film was inspired by a real person, “Mr. Pat” Pitsenbarger, one of the few out gay men in Stephens’ hometown of Sandusky, Ohio in the ’80s and ’90s—this final act is presented with attitude and style, too. [Katie Rife]
It’s hard to look at Waitress, the final film of actress-turned-writer/director Adrienne Shelly, straight on. It aims, and sometimes strains, to be a brightly colored, life-affirming comedy, the kind in which friendship and determination can overcome adversity and hurtle over any obstacles. But the film’s tragic backstory—Shelly was murdered in a random act of violence after Waitress’ completion—keeps throwing off the tone. That’s not the film’s fault, of course, and if Waitress had fewer problems of its own, it might be easier to overlook the specter in the margins. Though contrived and artificial in ways that don’t always work, the film is also heartfelt and made with genuine affection for its characters, qualities in too short a supply to dismiss. [Keith Phipps]