Streaming: where to find the best Richard Linklater and Xavier Dolan films online

Two distinctive directors have lost their way with their latest releases, but there’s a substantial back catalogue of their finer films…

Ordinarily, a week that includes new releases from directors Xavier Dolan and Richard Linklater would count as a major one in most cinephiles’ books. Two film-makers – one a prodigious enfant terrible who made seven films before turning 30, one a long-established godfather of American indie cinema – with little in common otherwise, they can both boast a prolific output, a distinctive stylistic signature, and a devoted club of admirers that all but deserted them on the two new films in question.

For the coronavirus shutdown isn’t the reason you’re not seeing Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F Donovan or Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadetteon the big screen in the UK. After underwhelming in festivals and/or cinemas abroad, they were already slated to shuffle with little fanfare on to the usual VOD platforms this spring – a pretty sorry outcome for films that boast not only major auteurs, but glitzy all-star casts and, in the case of Linklater’s film, a bestselling source novel. In this market, name power only goes so far.

I’d love to tell you that these films deserved better; sadly, neither can be called underrated. Of the two, The Death and Life of John F Donovan is at least the more fascinating folly. The first English-language film by the distinctively Quebecois Dolan, it falls right into the tin-eared trap that has snared many a gifted world-cinema luminary switching to English, but you can’t say it does so without ambition and bravado. Thrashing about in various narrative directions across multiple timelines, it vaguely follows the open-hearted correspondence between a lonely child actor (Jacob Tremblay) and his idol, a tortured, closeted movie star (Kit Harington). Said to have run four hours in its initial cut, it bears all the scars of a troubled edit: a subplot starring Jessica Chastain was excised in its entirety. What has survived, despite Dolan’s typically lush craftsmanship, is antic and scarcely coherent.

Trim and digestible by comparison, Where’d You Go, Bernadette isn’t an unpleasant watch. It’s just disappointingly beige given the seemingly winning combination of Linklater, star Cate Blanchett and Maria Semple’s sly, nimble comic novel. Tracing the mystery of a well-heeled but agoraphobic Seattle housewife who disappears on the eve of a family trip, it follows the thrust of the novel but never quite nails its tone: the jangly satirical elements clash with the more mournful character study at its heart, leaving much of the film in a bland limbo. Blanchett’s amusingly mannered turn is the tangiest thing here, though it’s hard to defend the surprise Golden Globe nomination she won for this.

Cate Blanchett lifts Richard Linklater’s ‘disappointingly beige’ Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Cate Blanchett lifts Richard Linklater’s ‘disappointingly beige’ Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Photograph: Wilson Webb

The good news is that both directors’ better days are easily available via streaming. My own favourite Dolan film, the anxiously atmospheric, Highsmith-infused queer thriller Tom at the Farm, can be found on iTunes, as can is his still-electrifying 2009 debut I Killed My Mother, a troubled mother-son battlefield made when he was just 19, and bristling with raw, ragged adolescent energy. I prefer it to Mommy, a more ornately styled development of similar themes, though it’s perhaps his most celebrated film; iTunes, again, has it for a mere 99p.

Linklater’s filmography, meanwhile, gives you a surfeit of choice, whether you prefer the woozy, seductive chatter of the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy (all available on Amazon), or the spiky, frayed Gen X energy of his breakthrough film, Slacker (Amazon again). The confident, unforced effervescence of more commercial efforts like School of Rock (free to stream on Prime or Now TV) is what his latest lacks. Meanwhile, we’re probably enough years away from the overworked critical discourse around Boyhood (on Netflix) to reappreciate his 12-year coming-of-age portrait for the beguiling experiment it was.

Linklater is reattempting that trick next, embarking on a two-decade schedule to film Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Dolan has since emerged from the wreckage of John F Donovan to make the far leaner, better Matthias & Maxime, which will be in cinemas later this year. Few will remember these straight-to-VOD blips, but for curious completists they’re quietly there.

Also new on streaming

Mark Hamill and R2-D2 in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Mark Hamill and R2-D2 in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Photograph: Allstar/LUCASFILM/WALT DISNEY PICTURES

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

(Disney, 12)
It can’t just be the stretched nature of quarantine time that makes this latest JJ Abrams-directed Star Wars instalment feel a very distant memory: lacking the visual splendour and narrative verve of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, it’s risk-free and hard to love.

Blue Story

(Paramount, 15)
A grassroots sensation in cinemas, Rapman’s south London gang-war tale covers pretty familiar turf, but there’s a fury to its point of view that makes it feel fresh, as do strong performances by newcomer Stephen Odubola and electrifying Bafta winner Micheal Ward.

Sergio
(Netflix)
This Sundance-premiered biopic of the late UN diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello is stately and well acted by Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas, but a bit colourless: director Greg Barker made a more absorbing documentary (also on Netflix) on the subject in 2009.

Black Christmas

(Universal, 15)
’Tis not the season for this tongue-in-cheek redo of the 70s Yuletide horror, but it went unnoticed in cinemas and deserves a second life: director Sophia Takal and writer April Wolfe wittily bring 21st-century campus culture to the sorority-slasher formula.

Cinema of Conflict: Four Films by Krzyszt of Kieslowski

(Arrow, 15)
A classy box set for fans of the late Polish master looking to go beyond Three Colours and Dekalog: a quartet of fine earlier films, including the ingenious split-narrative study Blind Chance, later ripped off by Sliding Doors.

Contributor

Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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