What to Watch Online: Streaming Recommendations Volume 1: Dysfunctional Families

     November 28, 2013

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Given that there are so many great movies, miniseries and TV shows streaming on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and more, it seemed like a good idea to dive deep into the catalogue and start a monthly curated recommendation list of what to check out.  Each service is so different, and offers such a varied selection overall (Netflix is the juggernaut, but Hulu is a treasure trove of British series and Criterion films, while Amazon offers more current series and newer releases), I’ll be attempting to tie the recs together under a theme.  This month, kicking off the holiday season, the focus is on unusual or dysfunctional families.  Hit the jump for the list.

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Heavenly Creatures (Netflix)

  • Format: Film
  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Country: Australia
  • Year: 1994
  • Stars: Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey

Before Lord of the Rings (does every Peter Jackson blurb have to start like this?  I think so), Jackson made this bizarre but hypnotic film that features Kate Winslet in her first movie role.  Heavenly Creatures deals with a complicated and gruesome true crime: the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder in Christchurch, New Zealand, where two teenage girls, Pauline and Juliet, (Lynskey and Winslet) develop an obsessive friendship that is based in a fantasy world they both retreat to together.  However, the bond intensifies to a dark point when the girls believe it is them against the world and, particularly, against Pauline’s mother, who tries to keep them apart.  The violence of their fantasy world spills over into a final cold blooded act that is visceral, and horrifying. Essentially, not one to maybe watch with the family, but highly recommended nevertheless.

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Little Dorrit (Hulu)

  • Format: Miniseries
  • Screenplay: Andrew Davies
  • Country: U.K.
  • Year: 2008
  • Stars: Matthew MacFadyen, Claire Foy, Andy Serkis

In the mid to late 2000s, there were a number of excellent adaptations of lesser known Charles Dickens novels done through a BBC / PBS partnership.  ThoughBleak House, starring Gillian Anderson, usually gets the most notice and praise (and it is very good), don’t overlook Little Dorrit, about a kind, motherless young girl (Foy) who grows up in a debtors prison where he father has resided for decades.  The Dorrits have a ton of family issues, and those issues spill over and tie in with other families as well.  Like the layered brilliance found in most any Dickens novel, the plots are dense and swirling, with lots of romance, intrigue, and a healthy dose of politics.  The cast and acting are top-notch, the production has a beautiful soundtrack, and the direction and camera work have much more of a modern feel than typically found in costume dramas, giving these adaptations a fresh feel and new life.  Ultimately, wanting to see how all of the stories connect and what will become of poor Amy Dorrit makes Little Dorrit an engrossing and satisfying watch.

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Lars and the Real Girl (Amazon)

  • Format: Film
  • Director: Craig Gillespie
  • Country: U.S.A / Canada
  • Year: 2007
  • Stars: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider

It’s unlikely you will travel home over the holiday season with a life-sized doll you call your significant other, or that someone in your family will show up with one.  But for Lars (Gosling) and his family, it’s a reality.  Lars is known for being quiet and withdrawn, having extreme difficulty relating to anyone he knows in his family or his town (but, of course, because it’s Ryan Gosling, at least one girl has a crush on him).  Things get really strange though when, suddenly, Lars tells his family he’s met a very special person named Bianca … who, it turns out, is a life-sized doll he has ordered online from an adult store. The film follows Lars’ family and the town adjusting to and accommodating his belief in Bianca’s reality, while also working to try and get him through the deep psychological issues driving this behavior. Bottom line: it’s a slow, sweet film with a very moving finale, populated with an outstanding cast.  What’s not to like?

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Henry Fool (Crackle)

  • Format: Film
  • Director: Hal Hartley
  • Country: U.S.A.
  • Year: 1998
  • Stars: Parker Posey, Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak

No one’s family probably looks all that bad when compared to the Grims.  Henry Fool is not my favorite Hal Hartley film, but they are difficult to find online, so Henry Fool it is.  Like most Hartley films, Henry Fool is strange, purposefully pretentious, staggeringly truthful, and peppered with vulgarity that is surprising and hilarious in its presentation.  In this particular story though, Hartley’s forever-present character of the witty rogue, this time called Henry (Ryan), befriends the socially inept Simon Grim (Urbaniak), and brings all manner of chaos to the Grim family, including to Simon’s sister Fay (Posey).  As Simon’s star begins to rise though thanks to Henry’s influence, Henry’s sinks ever lower, and his incorporation into the life of the Grims leaves them changed forever.  Henry Fool might not be the best introduction to Hartley’s style, which influenced so many other indie filmmakers of the 1990s and 2000s, but it’s such a rare treat to find any of Hartley’s work on streaming video that it cannot go unmentioned.

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