20 Hidden Gems On HBO Max You'll Wish You'd Known About Sooner
These excellent films, TV shows, and comedy specials have gotten buried under a mountain of streaming options.
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Nicole Holofcener is a master of the female-friendship comfort watch, and chief among them is this Catherine Keener vehicle which fans of
Frances Ha, or its spiritual predecessor Girlfriends, will find scratches a similar itch. Consider Walking and Talking a time capsule to a simpler time when video rental stores, landline phones, and the croons of Bill Bragg, served as set pieces for the perfect, quirky New York City romance.
Calling this one a "hidden" gem could be considered a wild mischaracterization among critical circles.
New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum, for her part, has been preaching Mike White's gospel for ages, writing that if she was "forced to choose, at gunpoint, the best show of the decade" she would choose Enlightened. Yes, it's that good — but the reality is that when HBO called for its cancelation, only a modest group of roughly 200 thousand were tuning in week to week. (Not every show can be Game of Thrones! Nor should they be!) Enlightened — the story of an idealistic whistleblower attempting to unchain herself from a corporate existence after a mental breakdown — will go down in HBO history as one of the deepest and most original TV shows of all time.
While we're on the topic of shows that ended too soon, how about we dive right into this cringe-comedy based on the British series of the same name. It takes place in a hospice unit (are you laughing yet?) and features brilliant, chaotic performances from Alex Borstein, Niecy Nash, and Laurie Metcalf. The trio play medical professionals working in the disturbingly mismanaged wing of the hospital and are confronted with dementia, Alzheimer’s and, of course, death on a regular basis. If you watched
Six Feet Under and thought "hm, not enough death here for me!" you're really in for a treat.
Tom McCarthy really knows how to pack an emotional punch — think:
Up for which he earned an Original Screenplay nomination or Spotlight, 2016's Best Picture winner, which he wrote and directed. Where you really get to see his storytelling skills on full display, though, is in his stripped-down earlier work like The Station Agent. In it, a man (Peter Dinklage) retreats to an abandoned train depot in rural New Jersey to get some alone time after a tragedy. An eccentric cast of locals played by Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale, have other plans for him.
For its first two seasons, this darkly comedic series about a group of Brooklyn millennials trying to locate a missing woman, felt like a true discovery for anyone who happened to land on TBS. Now, with its new home on HBO Max, it's getting many more eyeballs. And that's a great thing! I'm sure its supporting cast of deeply narcissistic characters, which include performances by John Early and Meredith Hagner (rising star of
Palm Springs), would be delighted to hear this!
New Line Cinema
There's been a recent swell of affection for this maligned David Lynch work, in part due to Showtime’s
Twin Peaks: The Return. Sure, it once received boos at Cannes (let's be real — Cannes moviegoers just like making noise!) and was called "an undifferentiated mess of story lines and hallucinations" by New York Times upon release (to be fair, that same publication recommended it for "Watching" two decades later), but if you're a Twin Peaks head or a Twin Peaks head-in-training, there's no doubt this will be right up your alley.
20th Century Fox
Ad Astra, also known as Dad Astra by me, is the rescue-mission story of Brad Pitt learning to let go of his grief after discovering his astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones; presumed dead) is actually alive and hiding away on another planet. It is also about Natasha Lyonne inexplicably working a boring 9-5 job on Mars. Even if you don't generally love space movies, and find that they all hit the same familiar beats, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover the completely fresh and original production design James Gray has dreamt up. Brad Pitt in space? How ~on earth~ did this not become a mega-blockbuster hit? Your guess is as good as mine, dear reader.
This Australian cult-comedy from P.J. Hogan may have turned 25 this year but it still feels as fresh and relevant as ever. Career-making performances from Toni Collette and Rachel Griffith (whose
quarantine content has really been a sight to behold)! Dismantling the patriarchy! Finding confidence from within! It's all here. Before coronavirus restrictions tightened, Hogan was in the midst of bringing “Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical” stateside (in Australia, it was a critical favorite), but that has temporarily been put on pause.
Gunpowder & Sky
The nice thing about watching an Elisabeth Moss movie is that you know going in that even if the movie is bad you will still get a good Elisabeth Moss performance. Which is to say: Even if you aren't head over heels for this relentless, claustrophobic film about an unhinged lead singer in an all-female trio called Something She, you will still be able to appreciate what Moss is able to do here with her acting chops. Certainly there is no shortage of Moss Having a Meltdown movies to choose from, but pick this one because it's a good corrective to the
A Star Is Born narrativizing of the music industry.
This surprise Sundance hit from director Debra Granik — whose most recent film,
Leave No Trace was a critical favorite that topped many year-end lists — features Jennifer Lawrence in her career-making role as a 17-year-old girl who sets out on a journey through the snowy Ozarks to track down her meth-dealing father. Watching Winter's Bone is to long for the quieter, pre-David O. Russell days, when Lawrence commanded our attention not with big or whimsical performances but through the power of her restraint.
20th Century Fox
Another one to file under the category of Haunting John Hawke Performances: This spectacular debut from Sean Durkin (whose
much anticipated follow-up is certain to make an even bigger splash) follows Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) on a harrowing journey into the rural New York state, where she is coaxed into a cult group led by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). This is one you'll definitely want to check out if you found yourself in awe of Midsommar — the two belong somewhere in the same spiritual universe — or you're looking for a slow-burning indie with a knockout performance at its center.
Twentieth Century Fox
Adapted from the best-selling young adult novel by
Angie Thomas, George Tillman Jr.'s film explores the psychological toll of police brutality as well as the code-switching of its protagonist Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) while existing in two worlds — the one where she attends school (an affluent, mostly white private school) and the one back home in "Garden Heights" with her family (a lower-income, mostly Black neighborhood). There's been renewed interested in this source text given recent unrest, showing up on several "racial injustice" film-watching guides, and a prequel titled Concrete Rose was recently announced to be in the works with a January 2021 release date.
New Line Cinema
Author Tom Perrotta has a knack for writing books that lend themselves to the screen. He's gifted us with
The Leftovers, Election, and most recently, Mrs. Fletcher. One that often gets forgotten, though, is this 2016 film adaptation from Todd Field which quietly picked up three Oscar nominations (including one for Perrotta's writing) at the time and then crept back into relative obscurity. Like many of Perrotta's source texts, Little Children takes place against a familiar upper-middle-class suburban backdrop and finds its protagonist Sarah (played by Kate Winslet) at odds with motherhood and domestic life. It's hard to find a single review upon release that didn't draw comparisons to American Beauty, but don't let that dissuade you — it's aged quite a bit better than its canceled-a-million-times-over counterpart.
Let's start by noting a few things that make this HBO limited series not a "hidden gem" at all: It's adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name and it won two Emmys in 2015, including Limited Series and Lead Actress In A Limited Series for Frances McDormand. How I know this is still a "hidden gem:" Because if people had actually watched it, I am certain we would be hearing about how truly revelatory this series is on a daily — no, hourly — basis! It's really one of the best cultural documents we have exploring intergenerational depression, or as Olive — the tough-cookie mother and math teacher — regards it,
a thing smart people have.
Fine Line Features
Dating back to 1948, only a small group of 44 actors and actresses have been nominated for Academy Awards for non-English language performances. Among them is Catalina Sandino Moreno for her powerful lead performance in Joshua Marston's Spanish-language film about a 17-year-old Colombian girl who resorts to a life as a drug mule to support her family. Upon its release, the Sundance film was celebrated for its humanizing approach to a fraught subject matter. Now, nearly two decades later, this film that helped move the needle forward, is still worth a revisit.
This Duplass Brothers-directed show about two couples living together under one roof in Los Angeles had its ups and downs but by the end of its two-season run, saying goodbye felt like saying goodbye to a good friend at summer camp. Starring Amanda Peet, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Duplass, and Steve Zissis, this was a show that could get away with pretty much anything just on the strength of its likable adult-child characters. (One of the series' very best episodes, 'Kick the Can,' finds the couples facing off in a game of ball in order to reclaim the field that a group of "hipsters" have reserved for the same time.) Luckily, we have been spoiled with
much more Duplass Brothers content!
If you watched
Marriage Story and felt like it was lacking the signature bitterness of some of Noah Baumbach's earlier films, might I recommend revisiting this polarizing 2010 film starring Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig? You certainly won't find that its protagonists have been " sanded down to an essential decency" here! Nevermind palatability — Stiller's neurotic portrait of a man in his forties who can't seem to land on his feet, is really a sight to behold.
While we're on the topic of arrested development: Lake Bell's very good debut feature finds an underachieving Carol (Bell) sleeping in the guest room of her father's house and trying to break into the boys' club that is the voice acting community. Her father, we learn, has made a pretty successful career out of his husky voice, narrating an impressive roster of corny movie trailers. Wholly original and told from a vantage point we don't often get within the box of "romantic comedy," this is one you don't want to miss.
Have you ever wanted to take a tour through the glittery brain of
Saturday Night Live writer and Los Espookys star Julio Torres? Then you'll certainly want to fire up this hour comedy special that's a corrective of sorts to the type of stiff, stand-up style (person pacing stage with a mic) you're most likely to find within the genre. Here, a conveyor belt carrying a handful of "shapes" becomes the unusual centerpiece for much of the special with Torres going through each in a show-and-tell style, filling out their backstories.
This Maggie Cheung-starring film from Olivier Assayas made a big impact at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and helped launch the director's career, but in the years since has been somewhat hidden from the broader Film Conversation. Shocking, given the
iconic looks it gifted the world. A testament to its staying power, Assayas recently revealed that an A24-backed TV series adaptation is in the works — use this an excuse to dig back into the Assayas archives and have a watch if you haven't done so already!
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