In less than five years, Amazon Studios has emerged as a major player in Hollywood. Along with Netflix, Amazon has upended the distribution system, paying out to acquire top tier movies on the film festival circuit. Through that, Amazon Studios has acquired some incredible titles. In short order, Oscar glory came their way.
In honor of this week’s release of “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” we’re going to be running down ten of the best Amazon Studios releases to date. Honorable Mentions include “Brad’s Status,” “Cold War,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Late Night,” “The Salesman,” and “Wonder Wheel.” Also of note, we’re including titles that were co-distributions or co-productions, with companies like Magnolia Pictures and Roadside Attractions.
10“The Neon Demon” (2016)
dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Ever since the critical acclaim of “Drive,” Nicolas Winding Refn has flirted with the mainstream, while simultaneously taking some esoteric directions. “The Neon Demon” represents his strangest film, though one with arguably his most interesting cast. That Amazon Studios picked this up was always an fascinating fit. Refn got way more eyes on this one because of the choice. The movie is often bizarre, but always compelling and hypnotic, with a great performance from Elle Fanning.
9“The Handmaiden” (2016)
dir: Park Chan-wook
The cinephile community rallied around this erotic psychological thriller. “The Handmaiden” marked an international success for filmmaker Park Chan-wook, as well as a major Oscar contender. Not simply an ace LGBTQ+ effort, it’s a masterclass in generating subtle tension. The industry has a dearth of erotic thrillers, therefore there are plenty of kudos to be dolled to Amazon Studios for seeing the void in the marketplace.
8“The Lost City of Z” (2017)
dir: James Gray
Finally free from the constraints of The Weinstein Company, James Gray joined up with Amazon Studios for his largest-scale movie yet (until this year’s “Ad Astra,” at least). “The Lost City of Z” is an impeccably filmed chronicle of obsession. The drive to follow a passion down a rabbit hole, even at the cost of life, clearly has a deep meaning to Gray, a director who often sees his wonderful works go astray after the fact, due to studio interference. Here, he channels that frustration into a period piece unlike anything else in his career.
7“Brittany Runs a Marathon” (2019)
dir: Paul Downs Colaizzo
This week’s new release marks a tremendously strong effort from Amazon Studios. Acquired at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” zigs whenever another movie would have zagged. A star vehicle for Jillian Bell, this dramedy leans in to not just the humor of her character, but the toxic elements as well. It makes for a messy protagonist, albeit one who Bell makes feel incredibly lived in. That entry point invests audiences in the character. Without that, the ending wouldn’t be as emotional as it ultimately is.
dir: Jim Jarmusch
Without an Amazon Studios to prop him up, Jim Jarmusch would likely never have gotten “Paterson” the audience it ultimately found. A quiet character study with Adam Driver as the title character, this movie carves out poetry through its simplicity. Like the protagonist of a Bruce Springsteen song, Driver’s Paterson is a working-class hero. He just goes about his day, finding beauty in poetry and everyday life. What could have been vapid, instead became something that is absolutely enthralling.
5“Cafe Society” (2016)
dir: Woody Allen
The beginning of Woody Allen‘s ill-fated relationship with Amazon Studios was this wonderful relationship drama. One of Allen’s most underrated recent efforts, it’s among his best looking films ever. Cinematography by the legendary Vittorio Storaro puts a luminous sheen on everything Allen captures. Moreover, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart make a fantastic romantic pairing for this meditation on love. While not the filmmaker’s most original work, “Cafe Society” is one that’s clearly a cut above.
4“Last Flag Flying” (2017)
dir: Richard Linklater
One of the 2017 award season’s biggest crimes was how ignored “Last Flag Flying” was. A symbolic sequel to “The Last Detail” from Richard Linklater, it was a unique experiment on the surface, though in practice it was simply an emotional dramedy with a trio of endearing performances. Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne made for terrific protagonists, generating laughs as well as tears along the way. Poignant and entertaining, it’s a full meal, one that Oscar voters should have paid more attention to.
3“You Were Never Really Here” (2018)
dir: Lynne Ramsay
A favorite at the Cannes Film Festival, Lynne Ramsay‘s meditation on violence is a unique beast. “You Were Never Really Here” makes audiences consider what pain does to a person. Joaquin Phoenix is engrossing here, rescuing young girls from becoming victims of sex trafficking while enduring a huge psychological toll by way of his own trauma. Ramsay mixes stunning cinematography, Phoenix’s performance, and a fever dream of a conspiracy to craft something unlike anything else in her career. A juggernaut of violence, this was always too offbeat for Oscar season but stands as one of last year’s highlights.
2“The Big Sick” (2017)
dir: Michael Showalter
Amazon Studios ran a tremendous Oscar campaign for this nearly perfect romantic dramedy. Penned by star Kumail Nanjiani, along with his wife Emily V. Gordon, “The Big Sick” chronicles the beginning of their relationship. Devoid of Hollywood cliches, instead it’s filled with tremendous performances, not just from Nanjiani, but also from Holly Hunter, Zoe Kazan, and Ray Romano. Mixing tremendous comedic timing with genuine emotion, the film is the company’s best crowdpleaser to date, as well as another example of their impeccable taste in acquiring Sundance titles.
1“Manchester by the Sea” (2016)
dir: Kenneth Lonergan
The best Amazon Studios release to date also marks their biggest awards success, one they picked up at Sundance they took all the way to the Oscar stage. Casey Affleck earned the Best Actor in a Leading Role statuette for a career best performance, while writer/director Kenneth Lonergan won Best Original Screenplay. “Manchester by the Sea” also received a nomination for Best Picture. More than just an Academy Award winning picture, this drama is absolutely heart wrenching. Affleck and Lonergan find ways to depict grief in intimate, introspective ways. Add Oscar-worthy supporting work from Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams, not to mention legitimately funny moments, and this is a magnificent film. It would be high up on the list of any distributor. For Amazon Studios, it’s the cream of their crop.