Netflix original TV shows are a fairly safe bet, as are their comedy specials (if you haven’t seen Nanette yet, stop reading this and go remedy that). Their original movies, on the other hand, tend to conjure vague recollections of Will Smith yelling at orcs and Adam Sandler being racist. Just in 2018 we had: The Cloverfield Paradox, notable for being released with no warning as a kind of surprise attack on unsuspecting viewers, Mute, a movie that imagines a future where nothing interesting ever happens, The Kissing Booth, a rom-com with neither rom nor com, and A Futile and Stupid Gesture, the rare film that is completely honest with the viewer up front.
It’s a minefield out there, so I’ve created this helpful guide to five movies that won’t make you want to cancel your subscription and bury your TV:
5 – To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
The film that inspired me to write this article. After getting burned over and over again this year, I finally stumbled across something not just good, but great. Based on a novel by Jenny Han, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before takes tropes we’ve seen in romantic comedies, and injects them with a freshness and warmth that is sorely lacking in most. Every character is absurdly likeable, but Lana Condor steals the show as the protagonist Lara Jean. When her little sister (played by the almost-as-lovable Anna Cathcart) mails all the love letters Lara Jean never intended to send, she has to confront the feelings she’s cocooned in the safety of her imagination. The film is optimistic without being schmaltzy, funny without a hint of irony, and smart without taking itself too seriously. Han clearly remembers what it was like being a teenager, and writer Sofia Alvarez and director Susan Johnson have adapted her book into one of the most delightful teen movies I’ve seen in years. Be sure to watch through the credits!
4 – Gerald’s Game
I may be in the minority here but I find the supernatural to be the least interesting thing in Stephen King books. Give me The Body over It any day, because when King is at his best he’s letting his characters, rather than his monsters, do the work. There’s a hint of the paranormal in Gerald’s Game, but this adaptation expertly captures the essence of what has made King such an enduring literary voice: characters. There are only two here, and one is mostly in the head of another, but the film is never anything less than compulsively watchable. It’s got a plot as urban legend you can get – a handcuff sex game goes horribly wrong – yet King uses this framework to explore some of the most mature themes of his career. Carla Gugino turns in her best performance yet, as Jessie, a woman trapped both figuratively and literally by the men in her life. It’s a story about the longing for freedom, and the sacrifices that have to made to achieve it; and what sacrifices! There’s a shot late in the film that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and the way everyone involved with the film builds to it is something you simply have to see to believe.
3 – 13th
Ava DuVernay follows up her magnificent Selma with a documentary that exposes just how racially biased the United States prison system is. The title comes from the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The key words here are “except as punishment for a crime” and 13th makes a case impossible to ignore that slavery still exists in the USA. DuVernay is an immensely skilled filmmaker, and her ability to work in both narrative and documentary filmmaking with equal proficiency is staggering. 13th filled me with a kind of rage impossible to describe in words – a hopeless, hollow anger that can’t be forgotten, even two years removed from watching the film. This should be required viewing in every high school in North America.
2 – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
It’s hard to believe that the Sandler of Punch Drunk Love and Funny People is the same person who who played both Jack and Jill. Perhaps he’s an Andy Kaufman level genius who delights in torturing his audience, or maybe he just likes to go on vacations with his friends and get paid millions of dollars to do so. Either way, my familiarity with Bizzaro Sandler can only enhance my appreciation for the real deal, and in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, he’s as good as he’s ever been. Here he plays the son of a semi-successful sculptor, who moves back in with his dad after separating from his wife. What follows is a complex, hilarious, and frequently moving examination of how families grow apart, and, occasionally, come back together. Broken into a series of vignettes, the film’s literary sensibility evokes the artistic aspirations, and failures, of Sandler’s Danny and Dustin Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz. Frequent Baumbach collaborator Ben Stiller shows up as Danny’s wealth manager brother, and all three men’s cycle of failed relationships, blame, and resentment is approached with the kind of realism and comic observations that Baumbach can do better than almost anyone else.
1 – Okja
Every once and a while a director shows up whose understanding of film language is so complete that every frame of their films seems to be exactly as they want it to be. So it is with Bong Joon-ho, an artist of such perfectionism that each film he makes exists as a kind of self-contained work so airtight and precise they would be intimidating if they didn’t have such an enormous heart.
Okja is a modern day fable that casts Tilda Swinton as the wicked witch, Ahn Seo-hyun as the child, and an extraordinary CGI creation as her animal friend. Seo-hyun’s Mija embarks on an epic journey to save her super pig Okja from certain death at the hands of Swinton’s sickeningly sweet CEO Lucy Mirando. Okja is a film that forces viewers to confront their own relationship with the meat industry, yet it is so much more than just that. It’s a supremely confident work, by turns funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring, by one of our very best filmmakers. Featuring fascinating supporting roles from Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, Okja is movie making at its best – fluid, poetic, and achingly empathetic.
Honorable Mention – i don’t feel at home in this world anymore
I just had to include this one. Macon Blair’s debut film is a wonderfully original dark comedy about a woman who’s finally had been pushed too far. Melanie Lynskey delivers another powerhouse performance, and Elijah Wood has a ton of fun playing her more-than-slightly unhinged neighbour. I’ve been a fan of Lynskey since I first saw her in Peter Jackson’s masterful Heavenly Creatures; here she mixes that sullen anger with her usual compassion, resulting in a fascinatingly uncertain protagonist who I cheered for from start to finish. Blair clearly learned a lot working with Jeremy Saulnier on Blue Ruin and Green Room and this film is unafraid of depicting violence in all its ugliness. And like those movies, the reason the brutality hits so hard is because we love the characters so much.
So there you have it, five movies (and one bonus!) that will always be on Netflix, and are most definitely worth watching. I didn’t notice until just now, but only one of the above movies has a male lead, and all were advertised by Netflix just as heavily as The Ridiculous 6. For better and for worse, this company is willing to give a diverse group of filmmakers free reign to do whatever the hell they want. Sometimes you get Mute, and sometimes you get Okja. And for that reason, though it will surely mean watching some pretty rough stuff, I’ll keep hitting play on Netflix originals.
I should also point out that I haven’t yet seen Mudbound but I’ve heard from a great deal of people I trust that it’s the best thing Netflix has ever made. And, seriously, watch Nanette.