When it comes to Oscars and streaming, it’s clear anybody interested in the actual history of the Academy Awards should be subscribing to HBO Max. The streaming platform has a hub for Turner Classic Movies, which programs “31 Days of Oscars” on cable and HBO Max, so subscribers can access some of the best films and performances in history. In addition, HBO Max is also the streaming home to three current Best Picture nominees, “West Side Story,” “Dune,” and “Drive My Car.”
“West Side Story” (2021): When this musical remake was released in theaters last December, a little indie film called “Spider-Man: No Way Home” obliterated everyone else in the box office race and exhausted all of the oxygen in the room. But now that “West Side Story” has seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and the feature has been released on streaming platforms, this is an excellent opportunity for many people to give it another chance because, hey, it turns out Steven Spielberg is still better at making movies than almost everybody else on the planet.
Based on the stage musical of the same name (which was adapted into a 1961 film that won the Oscar for Best Picture), “West Side Story” sends us into a small New York City neighborhood where a gang of white teens (aka The Jets) jockey for territorial control against their Puerto Rican rivals, the Sharks. Amid all this tension is Tony (Ansel Elgort), a reformed member of the Jets, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), sister of the Sharks leader), who lock eyes at a dance and fall madly in love immediately, but their relationship only inflames both sides.
It’s probably a good time to mention “West Side Story” is also a retelling of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” so there is a ton of legacy prestige weighing upon Spielberg’s version, but he handles the material masterfully. The director’s reimagining is filled with dynamic staging and visual splendor, a powerful reminder that the artistic promise of a film can be limitless. Make a point to watch this new “West Side Story,” which stands as one of the best films of 2021, regardless of its Oscar chances.
TL;DR Verdict: Add to Watchlist
HBO Max contains an embarrassment of Oscar riches from the past to this year, even the original 1961 “West Side Story.” Dig into the listings yourself, or jump to these four audience favorites that also won Best Picture:
- “Casablanca” (1942): Of all the gin joints in all the movies in all the world, this is the best one. Legendary screen icon Humphrey Bogart plays Rick Blaine, a nightclub owner looking to operate under the radar in Casablanca. He’s forced to reconsider his worldview when his old flame, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), walks in the door with her new husband, a Czech resistance leader looking for passage to America to regroup in the campaign against the Nazis. A movie that finds a way to pull in almost everybody who watches it, “Casablanca” remains one of Hollywood’s greatest films.
- “In the Heat of the Night” (1967): The recent passing of actor Sidney Poitier reminded many of his career highlights, including this Civil Rights-era drama co-starring Rod Steiger and directed by Norman Jewison. Poitier plays Virgil Tubbs, a Philadelphia detective arrested while traveling in Mississippi just because he’s black. After Tubbs is freed, he’s reluctantly pulled into solving a murder case in a rural town. Poitier’s role and presence here were revolutionary for mass audiences at the time and now exists as an alarm about how little has changed in a half-century.
- “Rocky” (1976): Arguably the greatest sports movie of all time, this engaging tale about a Philadelphia unsung boxer getting one shot against the champion feels more in line with other 70s movies than its own sequels. Sylvester Stallone brings a humanizing rawness in his first foray as the Italian Stallion, a role that would become his defining character. The story of “Rocky” manifested itself in reality when the movie became a surprise Best Picture winner during a stacked year. Fire this up if you wanna fly now.
- “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003): The finale of director Peter Jackson’s adapted trilogy, “The Return of the King” victory was considered recognition for the entire trilogy, so you might as well watch “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers” (theatrical and extended versions also available on HBO Max) to appreciate this incredible achievement. Jackson was so skillful in crafting a fantasy epic with story, performance, cinematography, design, effects, makeup, and sound that the Academy had no choice but to acknowledge an often overlooked genre. It’s hard to imagine any other fantasy world feeling so real.