Pick of the week: “The Confirmation” (Netflix) — My full review is here. You want the very definition of a hidden treasure on Netflix? It’s this gem from Bob Nelson, who wrote Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” and brings his unsentimental but affectionate eye for small-town characters to his debut as a writer-director. Clive Owen plays an alcoholic divorced dad who brings his eight-year-old son (the wonderful Jaeden Lieberher) on a quest to find his stolen toolbox. It’s a riff on “The Bicycle Thief,” both eloquent and no-nonsense, and Owen and son run across a ton of great character actors on their journey, including Patton Oswalt, Maria Bello, Matthew Modine and Robert Forster. This one’s a keeper.
Pick of the Week: “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation“ (Amazon Prime and Hulu) — When word of a fifth “M:I” was announced, I thought “Really?” Sure, Brad Bird’s “Ghost Protocol” was the high point of the franchise for me, but did Tom Cruise really need to go to the well for a fifth time? As it turns out, “Rogue Nation” (directed by Christopher McQuarrie) is sparkling entertainment that blends the humor and panache of caper films of yore with cutting-edge stunts. Bring on No. 6.
Pick of the Week: “Z for Zachariah” (Amazon Prime) — My full review is here. Despite a stellar cast that includes Margot Robbie (“Suicide Squad”), Chris Pine (“Star Trek Beyond”) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”), this Craig Zobel sci-fi drama never really caught fire and never played theatrically in Madison. Too bad, because it downplays the sci-fi and plays up the character drama, set in an idyllic valley apparently immune to the ravages of an apocalypse. A man and a woman meet there. And then another man shows up, setting up a love triangle with perhaps the future of humanity at stake.
Pick of the Week: “The Big Short“ (Netflix) — My full review is here. Adam McKay has satirized ’70s newsmen (“Anchorman”) and buddy cop movies (“The Other Guys”), but his wit has never been sharper or put to better use than against the arrogant idiocy of bankers who precipitated the 2008 financial meltdown. Working from Michael Lewis’ book and using a ridiculously good cast, McKay keeps us laughing even as we’re learning what happened, and why we should be so pissed off about it.
Pick of the week: “Lost in America” (Netflix) — Albert Brooks fan rejoice, as Netflix is now streaming all the comedies he wrote and directed. Maybe give a miss to “The Muse,” but there are some comic masterpieces here, including “Defending Your Life,” “Modern Romance” and this 1985 gem starring Brooks and Julie Hagerty as an upwardly mobile couple who decide to “drop out” of society, only to find life out of the rat race isn’t so comfortable. Even in a top-of-the-line RV.
Pick of the week: “Spotlight“ — My full review is here. Last year’s Best Picture winner was something of an underdog, fitting for a complex, cool-headed but quietly furious drama about a team of Boston Globe reporters who painstakingly unearth a conspiracy of silence around priest abuse in the Catholic Church. Writer-director Tom McCarthy avoids Hollywood melodrama, instead showing us the relentless legwork that went into reporting the story, making things such as searching through archives and interviewing witnesses the stuff of high drama, and heroism.
Pick of the Week: “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” (Netflix): My full review is here. Netflix dropped this excellent documentary by UW-Madison graduate Bill Siegel about a month ago, but wisely picked it back up after the death of Ali. It’s a terrific look inside Ali’s struggles in the 1960s against the Vietnam War and for civil rights, a fight that got him banned from boxing and made him a pariah for many white Americans. While he is being rightfully lionized, this film is an important reminder of how much of the country turned its back on him and what he stood for.