The streaming wars seem destined to rage on forever, which is great news for cinephiles eager to expand their horizons. Hulu, once merely an upstart among a swath of veteran broadcasters, now features a particularly robust library of films to choose from. Sturgeon’s law still applies as with any catalog, though, and it might seem difficult to find the real gems housed within Hulu’s massive library. That said, our strictly curated list is a one-stop guide to the best, smartest, and most intriguing films currently streaming on the landmark service. Eat your heart out, Netflix.
Director Christopher Nolan has always been a cinematic adventurer, trying to show audiences spectacles like they’ve never seen before (the reverse chronology of Memento, the mechanical dreamscapes of Inception) even while rooting his stories in familiar concepts like memory or love. Interstellar is both his most spectacular film and one of his most intimate, juxtaposing mankind’s exploration of space with the more down-to-earth struggles of family. Set after an environmental catastrophe has ruined the planet and reduced civilization to subsistence farming, the film opens with former astronaut turned farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) raising his children and mourning humanity’s former greatness. Recruited by NASA for a mission to find new habitable worlds, Cooper leaves his family behind to seek out a new home for humanity aboard the spaceship Endurance. The journey takes the crew to some otherwordly places, allowing Nolan to show off his talents as a visual stylist. Interstellar sometimes veers into overbearing sentimentality, but in its best moments (and there are many) it is one of the most dazzling films in recent memory.
Love makes people do crazy things, sometimes criminal things, and who examines criminal behavior in all its eccentricities better than the Coen Brothers? The story begins when a jealous husband hires a private investigator to follow his cheating wife. The situation spirals out from there, with bloody consequences. The Brothers’ first feature film, Blood Simple feels like the blueprint for the rest of their careers, with the sharp dialogue, complex characters, and virtuosic cinematography that they have long been known for. Yet, the film never comes across as embryonic. It seems instead like the work of veterans, a tightly plotted thriller that keeps its focus on the human elements. Smartly written, well-acted, and with more than a few twists, Blood Simple is an expertly-made thriller from two of America’s greatest living filmmakers.
Mel Gibson’s 1995 historical epic has become something of a punchline, no doubt thanks to the actor’s very public fall from grace and the film’s earnestly patriotic “FREEDOM!” speech. That’s a shame, because Braveheart is an intense war film, a bloody epic that draws inspiration from cinema classics like Spartacus. The film follows the life of William Wallace (Gibson), a minor Scottish nobleman whose wife is murdered by the country’s English governors. Taking up arms in revenge, Wallace leads a guerrilla campaign against the English, hoping to liberate his people from the rule of King Edward I. Gibson is in his prime as a leading man, and the film is a great showcase for his directorial chops. Tightly choreographed fight scenes and sweeping shots of the Lowlands are exposed in their muddy, primal glory. Although Braveheart has its share of over-the-top moments (the aforementioned cry of “Freedom!”) it is, for the most part, a beautiful, bloody affair, with Wallace teetering between heroism and butchery.
Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ opens with a dream, the protagonist Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) suffocating as onlookers leer at him before he escapes, rising up into the sky. Though his dream ends when he is literally dragged back to Earth, the film never loses that dreamlike imagery. Chronicling Guido’s attempts to film a new movie (he is a director, one of the film’s many autobiographical notes), he’s shown grappling with creative slowdown and his own troubled relationships. Although the troubled film production is ostensibly the premise of the film, plot seems like an afterthought; the focus is on Guido’s interior struggles, conveyed primarily through images rather than events. Fellini’s direction is superb, his camera gliding effortlessly as he follows characters of interest, always finding the right angle. Detractors have claimed 8 ½ has a muddled, even nonsensical plot; perhaps they are right, but film is a visual medium, and Fellini conjures imagery of great power and majesty.
Despite griping from more prudish sorts, violence has always been a fixture of art. Even the earliest myths are awash in bloodshed, an eternal tradition carried up through Marlowe and Shakespeare, all the way to the present, a tradition into which Lady Snowblood slides as easily as a sword through flesh. Directed by Japanese auteur Toshiya Fujita, Lady Snowblood is a Japanese cult classic, a bloody revenge tale whose artistry has made it popular in film circles, with even Quentin Tarantino praising it. The film, whose narrative unfolds in various flashbacks and present events, follows Yuki (Meiko Kaji), an assassin seeking revenge against the people who killed her family. It’s a familiar premise for a tale of revenge, made unique by its female protagonist, played with icy resolve by Kaji.
Sitting beneath the Rashomon Gate, three men discuss a recent crime. In a grove, a samurai has been killed. The authorities bring in the samurai’s wife, the bandit suspected of murdering him, and even the dead man’s spirit. Shockingly, all three claim responsibility for the killing. Akira Kurosawa’s landmark film examines this murder mystery, telling through contradictory flashbacks each witness’s account of the killing. While the conclusion is frustrating to some, the movie offers a unique examination of human memory and the self-interest that motivates various suspects to confess to a crime. The script, based on the short story In a Grove, is beautifully served by Kurosawa’s direction: he uses exaggerated lighting to highlight the surreality of the flashbacks, and his mastery of composition and camera movement are in full display. Rashomon is a monumental film, brilliant in its visual exploration of perception and truth.
Ingmar Bergman was never known for directing happy films, often exploring themes like death, disease, and the iron grip of fate. Somehow, Bergman managed to top himself with Persona, a nightmarish character study of two women: Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse, and Elisabet (Liv Ullman), an actress undergoing a mental breakdown. The two spend the summer in a house by the seaside, where Alma is set to help Elisabet recover. Though the two get along at first, their secrets cause friction, and the film descends into a disturbing psychological struggle between the two. The film opens with a bizarre sequence of images including the butchering of a lamb and corpses waking up. It’s a bold opening, relying entirely on imagery to move the audience, and it reads like a thesis for the rest of the film, in which the story unravels just as its protagonists do. Jungian psychology, with its focus on symbols and dreams, had a huge influence on the film, and by the end viewers may not be entirely sure what happened, but Bergman isn’t concerned with concrete understanding; Persona is about subconscious meaning.
There is a bit of irony in the fact that Apocalypse Now is perhaps the most iconic Vietnam War film, as the movie actually has very little to say about the politics of the conflict. Instead, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic opus centers on a relatively small mission, using a trip deep into the heart of the jungle to explore the inner madness that war breeds. The plot follows Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), a special operations officer assigned a peculiar task. A special forces commander, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has gone AWOL, establishing his own private army in Cambodia. Willard is ordered to journey to Kurtz’s compound and assassinate the rogue colonel. Along the way he must survive the perils of warfare, both physical and spiritual.
Coppola was an old hand at filmmaking by the time he directed Apocalypse Now, and the film shows the touch of a veteran. As Willard ventures further into the wilds, the film takes on a more surreal edge, the camera capturing the portentous evening light dripping down through the trees. Sheen’s measured portrayal of Willard grounds the film, but Brando’s legendary (if brief ) performance alone is worth the journey.
Shakespeare casts a wide shadow over the world of cinema, with many directors attempting to capture The Bard’s timeless tragedies on film. The best film adaptation of Shakespeare is arguably Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which transfers the plot of Macbeth from medieval Scotland to feudal Japan. The film is about the rise and fall of Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), a general in service to the lord of Spider Web Castle, who stumbles upon a spirit that foretells his future, saying Washizu himself will one day become lord of Spider Web Castle. At the behest of his wife, Washizu murders the lord in an attempt to hasten the prophecy. As he grows more powerful, however, Washizu becomes more paranoid, and his lust for control drives him to darker deeds.
Mifune was always known for his intense stare and imposing acting style, and he brings out all the madness and fury of the Macbeth character. Kurosawa brings distinctly Japanese sensibilities to the production, drawing on the exaggerated, highly physical style of Noh theater, rather than slavish devotion to Shakespeare’s original. Throne of Blood features some of Kurosawa’s finest work; look no further than the scene where Washizu and his friend Miki stumble through a fog-choked wood, coming across the pale spirit that will foretell their fate, the mists hanging eerily like an axe above their necks.