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Five Overlooked Gems Streaming on Hulu

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Sure, Hulu is great for catching up with the latest episode of Modern Family or Jane the Virgin, but what often gets overlooked is that the online service has thousands of movies available for streaming. This includes the bulk of the Criterion Collection, as well as other independent distributors like Asian Crush and the Classic Russian Collection.

To get you started on your own Hulu film festival, let's take a look at five under-appreciated gems currently streaming on the site.

Title: Il Sorpasso

Plot: On a sunny weekend in early-'60s Italy, a chance encounter between convertible-driving party animal Bruno and bookish law student Roberto leads to an eventful, picaresque road trip through economic miracle Rome and its environs. As incident follows incident, will this unlikely odd couple maintain their friendship, or will harsh reality sabotage their idyll?

Reason to Watch: This elegant Italian road movie, which pairs the exuberant Vittorio Gassman with French superstar Jean-Louis Trintignant, manages to balance a rich and subtle attention to character with stylish compositions that really do justice to the Italian landscape.  This is also 1963, when black-and-white cinematography had never looked better. Director Dino Risi is an expert craftsman with a light touch, and Il Sorpasso comes to us pristine and fully restored courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Title: Close-up

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Plot: It's the late 1980s, and Iranian film buff Hossain Sabzian has inserted himself into a middle-class Teheran family by pretending to be respected filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf.  When his cover is blown, Sabzian is put on trial and, with a little help from the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf (and Close-up's director, Abbas Kiarostami), we peel back the layers of deceit and delusion to figure out what led Sabzian to do what he did and how he was able to carry his deception so far.

Reason to Watch: Okay, so this has to be one of the most meta movies ever made. The events depicted really happened in Teheran in the late '80s, and when Kiarostami set about turning them into a film, he hired the actual participants to play themselves. So the Sabzian we see on the screen is the Sabzian who impersonated Makhmalbaf, and the family is the family he defrauded. This film about a true-to-life re-enactment of a grand deception blurs the boundaries between fiction and documentary beyond all recognition. The end result is an endlessly fascinating series of mysteries to rival anything in the films of David Lynch.

Title: Gray's Anatomy

Plot: In this genre-defying movie (if you had to call it something, we guess you could call it a "monologue film"), the late great raconteur Spalding Gray develops a macular pucker in his eye that requires surgery. The neurotic Gray doesn't like the sound of that, and he monologues wittily about his attempts to exhaust all the other options -- ranging from acupuncture to so-called "psychic surgery" -- before biting the bullet and getting the surgical procedure.

Reason to Watch: Gray's monologue films are like nothing else in cinema. As in previous outings like Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box, the movie consists mostly of Gray doing what he does best: talking. This time he's brought Steven Soderbergh along for the ride, and the Erin Brockovich director provides supplementary interviews with doctors, plus imagery and sound effects that serve to distinguish this film from Gray's previous outings, all without shifting excessive attention away from the great storyteller at the heart of the film.

Title: Two Lovers

Plot: A young New Yorker (Joaquin Phoenix, just before he embarked on his fake rap career) finds himself torn between the respectable young woman his parents have set him up with (Vinessa Shaw) and the troubled but intriguing woman who has just moved in next door (Gwyneth Paltrow). Will our hero follow his head or his heart, and how can he do either when he doesn't really know what they're telling him?  

Reason to Watch: This set-up may sound prosaic, but director James Gray uses it to craft a tender and profoundly compassionate exploration of loneliness and longing. Two Lovers radiates an intelligence and humaneness that has become rare in American cinema. Joaquin Phoenix is rapidly (and somewhat surprisingly!) becoming one of the greatest actors of his generation, and he and Gwyneth Paltrow (if you'll put aside whatever knee-jerk hostility her name evokes in you) shine in this deeply affecting film.

Title: Headshot

Plot: A Thai hit man on a mission gone bad takes a bullet to the head and survives. However, his vision is permanently flipped, so he sees the world upside down. Our hero has to constantly correct and decode his damaged visual input if he hopes to survive repeated attacks from the numerous people who want to kill him. A hit man, after all, has many enemies.

Reason to Watch: So first and foremost, Headshot's upside-down vision gimmick is pretty cool in its own right, but what's really admirable is that director Pen-ek Ratanaruang doesn't rely solely on gimmickry to make his movie work. Headshot delivers crisply choreographed action sequences and clever plotting that is engrossing enough to make you forget from time to time the protagonist's profoundly skewed worldview. It's also a great introduction to Thai cinema, which has been riding a wave of international acclaim in recent years, thanks in no small part to Pen-ek's stylish genre films.