Amid the distractions of Netflix, and the ongoing search for new and unusual streaming services, I admit I’ve rather neglected a faithful standby. In addition to its obvious uses as a TV catch-up service, the BBC iPlayer rarely gets much credit or promotion for the breadth and intelligence of its film selection: too often I forget to check what’s on its menu for a couple of weeks, and am surprised by the accumulated treasures when I return.
At the moment, for example, you can catch gems as assorted as Ben Wheatley’s excellent family-feud tragicomedy Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, Nicholas Ray’s stony-hard 1952 noir On Dangerous Ground or Miloš Forman’s whirling Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon – all streaming, of course, for free. Like an eccentric but generous auntie, the iPlayer always has some manner of treat in its bag if you just rummage around for it. Covering its highlights for this column, however, can be tricky when many films have such short, limited streaming windows: like a more haphazardly structured version of Mubi, it’s not a model that permits a lot of procrastination.
When it comes to content from the online-only channel BBC Three, however, there’s rather more leeway. Still going digitally three years after being dropped from the airways, the channel is hanging on to its youth-targeted remit, with laxer scheduling to match: its films hit the iPlayer for five months at a time, giving them more word-of-mouth time to find younger, less vigilantly Beeb-attuned viewers.
That’s to the benefit of us all, since the channel’s film picks are among the iPlayer’s most adventurous and essential. Right now, they have two of the sharpest, slyest teen movies of recent years: if the testing indulgences of Mubi’s recent Under the Silver Lake soured you on the gifts of David Robert Mitchell, let his cool, cutting suburban horror It Follows, with its intertwined vines of terror and restless adolescent sexuality, remind you what everyone got so excited about. And if you’ve never seen The Edge of Seventeen, you now have until the winter to rectify that. Kelly Fremon Craig’s acutely funny but tenderly perspective tangle of conflicting teenage emotions and allegiances, with its knockout performance by Hailee Steinfeld as a high-schooler handling a new romance between her brother and her best friend, never got quite the attention or acclaim of Lady Bird or Eighth Grade, but it’s their worthy classmate.
Best of all, however, is its fresh, bracing selection of international documentaries – unlike the many fine films found in the BBC’s Storyville strand, they aren’t overly disguised with channel branding, though the broadcaster has a habit of embellishing the titles in rather naff, literal-minded ways. Rightly nominated for an Oscar it really should have won, Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap (here appearing as Minding the Gap: An American Skateboard Story) is both desperately moving and formally exhilarating in its long-term examination of two Illinois skateboarders growing up and coming to terms with damaged masculinity – both their own and that of others. If you missed it during its brief cinema run this spring, don’t sleep on it again, particularly when it’s free.
A couple of festival dates aside, you wouldn’t have had a chance to catch Nancy Schwartzman’s bluntly powerful Roll Red Roll (or A High School Rape Goes Viral: Roll Red Roll, to again use the BBC’s ungainly moniker) on a big screen. The film-making is ungarnished in this fuming, activist-spirited study of high-school sexual assault, but its message is undiluted: centred on a rape case intermeshed with toxic football-team culture in an eastern Ohio school, it takes the shape of a true-crime thriller as it traces the perpetrators and consequences of the act. Riveting and conversation-starting, it’s not what most would choose to see on a night out – but it’s exactly the kind of streaming fare a public broadcaster should be making freely available.
New to streaming & DVD this week
Ray & Liz
(New Wave, 15)
Photographer Richard Billingham makes a vital film-making debut, dramatising his working-class childhood with social acuity and cinematic verve.
(Drakes Avenue, 15)
Eight years into the film-making ban imposed on him by the Iranian government, Jafar Panahi’s darkly playful feminist mystery is his most inventive and elastic subversion of it.
Alita: Battle Angel
This James Cameron-scripted manga adaptation boasted dazzling 3D effects in cinemas; without those, it’s just a lot of busily clanking metal.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Elia Kazan’s first film remains less known than it should be, since it’s among his greatest: a graceful, empathetic Irish-American coming-of-age story, gorgeously transferred to Blu-ray.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Another welcome Eureka re-release, Robert Altman’s elegiac bauble of Americana lives up to the oddball allure of its title.