Most of the other films we picked, if they are online at all, are available online only to rent or buy. There are, however, a couple of Oscar shoo-ins produced by the streaming services themselves that you can watch for the price of a subscription. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which begins with the early stages of an increasingly bitter divorce before switching back and forth to show how a theatre director (Adam Driver) and his actress wife (Scarlett Johansson) fell in love and out of it, is a Netflix original. So is Martin Scorsese’s magisterial The Irishman, a three and a half hour true crime story of the hitman (Robert De Niro) who may have killed union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Over on rival streaming service Prime Video is a much smaller but nevertheless fascinating account of the writing and the eventual partial release of a US Senate report into military torture, starring Adam Driver as the indefatigable researcher reporting to Senator Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening). Scott Z. Burns’s The Report has been rather lost in the wash at the cinemas: catch it here.
There are even a few free-to-air freebies. One of my personal best movies last year was Norwegian director Gustav Moller’s The Guilty, which has popped up on the often overlooked SBS on Demand; set entirely within the two rooms of a police call centre, it follows a kidnapping unfolding in real time at the other end of the phone line. Asgar (Jakob Cedergren, in a restrained and gripping performance), armed only with his phone, tries to unravel the truth by listening for stray sounds and changing tones of voice.
Also well worth catching on SBS is Border, a genre-defying Swedish film seen only in the Scandinavian Film Festival last year. Eva Melander plays an apparently female customs officer with grotesque features but a prized ability to sniff out contraband; when she meets a passing traveller who looks like her, she begins to recognise her true – and utterly bizarre – identity. The unfolding story of mythical monsters is riveting, but also unexpectedly moving.
Several of our critics’ top picks are available to rent or buy via YouTube, Googleplay or iTunes. The Korean arthouse gem Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong and based on a novel by Haruki Murakami, follows aimless young man Jong-su as he meets and falls for an old schoolmate in Seoul, looks after her cat while she is away and is then confronted with Ben, a man she met on holiday, who carries with him an unidentifiable but palpable whiff of malevolence.
Burning is one of several of Madman’s 2019 releases now available (on YouTube, Microsoft and iTunes) for four or five dollars’ rental. For those who can’t catch it in the cinemas, Bong Joon-ho’s bloody comedy about buildings and class, Parasite – No.1 for the year in our critics’ Top 10 and now a Golden Globe winner – will release online next month. Meanwhile, you can see one of my own favourites, Woman at War, an Icelandic film about a middle-aged choir mistress turned eco-terrorist who attacks power cables with a crossbow – on YouTube. Compelling and hilarious by turns, Benedikt Erlingsson’s film also includes fabulously eccentric musical accompaniment, led by a tuba.
Scour the streaming services’ baffling menus and, with some ingenuity, you could be right up to date.
Other Madman releases worth searching out include Transit, Christian Petzold’s intriguing retelling of a 1942 novel about Europeans trying to escape the Nazis, reset in the present (iTunes, $7); The Hummingbird Project, an uncategorisably odd American indie about a couple of would-be entrepreneurs played by Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard who set out to make their fortunes by putting fibre-optic cable through the wilderness (FoxTel subscription, Googleplay and YouTube for $4); and our undisputed Top 10 inclusion The Australian Dream, the award-winning documentary about outstanding indigenous AFL player Adam Goodes, whose experiences reveal a deeper story of racism in Australia (iTunes, Vimeo and YouTube, about $7).
Some films from the big distributors find their way to YouTube. Universal’s The Sisters Brothers, a new reading of the western genre by French director Jacques Audiard, based on a novel by Patrick DeWitt and starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in top laconic form, was inexplicably overlooked at the box office earlier this year. That said, this story of damaged men on a dangerous frontier is unquestionably one of the very best films of the year and it’s now on YouTube or Googleplay ($7). From Roadshow comes Ari Aster’s brilliantly realised chiller Midsommar, about an American couple caught up in some Swedish folk rituals that definitely pre-date social democracy (iTunes and YouTube, $7).
And even now, as the Golden Globes inexorably point the way to the Oscars, a couple of the big movies of the year – also on our lists of the best – are already available as VOD. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, his sprawling account of the ’60s transition from film to television starring Leonardo di Caprio as a fading series star and Brad Pitt as his stuntman, is available on iTunes, Microsoft and YouTube ($7). Judy, with Renee Zellweger giving an uncannily precise, Globe-winning performance as Judy Garland on her last tour of Britain, is available for the same price at Microsoft. Scour the streaming services’ baffling menus and, with some ingenuity, you could be right up to date by the time the awards season reaches its zenith. So happy viewing – and stay safe.
Stephanie Bunbury is a film and culture writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.