By The Pajiba Staff | Streaming | January 11, 2019 |
By The Pajiba Staff | Streaming | January 11, 2019 |
There are an enormous amount of Netflix Original Movies available these days — over 120 — while Netflix continues to add more every week. We cannot review them all. One, because there are too many Netflix Original Movies to keep up with, and two, because — let’s be honest — most of them aren’t that good. We’ve reviewed a lot of them, and most of them are not very good. In fact, if you just want to know which ones are good, scroll down closer to the bottom of the list, because these are ranked from worst to first and the list doesn’t really get to “watchable” until around A Futile and Stupid Gesture. I’d also suggest that only the top five or six, are “necessary” viewing. Beyond that, you’re better off watching Netflix Original Series.
The Ridiculous Six (Watch Here) — Twelve seconds in and the Happy Madison logo flashes, and I am filled with dread.
You Get Me (Watch Here) — You Get Me, an original Netflix film released last summer, is terrible, and no one should watch it. If Netflix inexplicably recommends this movie to you — as it did me — you should think long and hard about letting an algorithm choose your movies for you based on the fact that you watched three episodes of Santa Clarita Diet. The Netflix algorithm is wrong, and it should be ashamed of itself.
When We First Met (Watch Here) — When We First Met, takes all the ick we ignored in About Time and Groundhog Day and distills it into a potent combination of the worst parts of Groundhog Day crossed with Insert Friend Zone Movie Here. Every moment of When We First Met could not be more painfully obvious, and that might be forgivable if there were an ounce of humor, a dose of charm, or a decent character in the entire film. But it’s a generic, one-note, humorless comedy that would otherwise clearly be destined for Redbox were it not for the existence of Netflix. It’s a complete waste of Daddario’s best feature, Amell’s considerable charm, and Shelley Hennig, the only actor here who leaves the film with her dignity still intact.
The Kissing Booth (Watch Here) — The Kissing Booth is not a good film. In fact, its themes are at times unsettling. Lee Flynn (Joel Courtney) spends the movie trying to emotionally manipulate Shelly (King) into not dating his older brother, while the older brother, Noah (Elordi), threatens to beat up anyone else who tries to date Shelly. It’s literally a movie about two men trying to control a woman. At one point, in fact, a classmate of Shelly’s sexually assaults her by grabbing her butt. Noah beats up the classmate, but then Shelly agrees to go on a date with the classmate anyway after he apologizes by wearing the same short skirt that Shelly was wearing when the classmate grabbed her behind. It’s not exactly a progressive movie, and a number of outlets have called out the movie for its sexist themes. But if one can look past its many, many problems, as well as the stereotypes, cliches, and its painfully derivative nature, I can see where it might be somewhat satisfying for a teen audience, especially one starved for teen romantic comedies in an era decidedly lacking in them.
Mute (Watch Here) — I’ve watched Mute twice. The first time, Duncan Jones’s latest seemed so incoherent, so ugly, so inexplicable that I couldn’t believe just how thoroughly bad it was. Then I saw Jones retweeting praise from fans, and subtly throwing shade on the critics who helped give his passion project a painful 9% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, critics had heralded his inventive and strange debut Moon and cheered for his first studio spin Source Code. But among us, there was an intense disappointment that his early talents felt squandered in Warcraft, then completely absent in Mute. Still, I wondered if we were too harsh. I remembered the title card at the end that dedicated the movie to his parents (RIP Bowie), and I felt compelled to give Mute a second chance. It didn’t help.
The Open House (Watch Here) — Netflix’s thriller/horror flick The Open House stars Dylan Minnette as Logan, and Piercey Dalton as his mother, Naomi. After the devastating and unexpected loss of his father, the two are unable to pay the rent on their home and move into a relative’s empty vacation home. It’s for sale, but the two only need to leave the house for a few hours on Sundays for the open house. The Open House isn’t anything new or different. It’s clear that Angel and Coote saw The Strangers and decided to make their own version of it, removing the claustrophobia, intensity, and emotion. It is a waste of the talent involved and the freedom that comes with making movies for a streaming service.
The Christmas Prince (Watch Here) — This stars iZombie’s Rose McIver! This is not a good movie.
Extinction (Watch Here) — Frustratingly stilted, poorly written, and narratively nonsensical, Extinction is quite possibly the least original sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen. You want clichés, YOU GET ALL THE CLICHÉS! Characters are plagued by visions they can’t explain! Society is regimented and bland, and things seem wrong. Aliens make insect noises like the Prawns in District 9 for no good reason! Annoying children are extra annoying in the face of an invading force! The very first thing you guess about Extinction will be what ends up happening.
Bright (Watch Here) — If you watched filmmaker David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and thought to yourself, “Man, there was too much nuance, cohesion, and subtlety in this movie for me,” then perhaps you will be one of the few people in the world to actually enjoy Bright. It’s like Ayer took every element of Suicide Squad and leaned into it more—more stupidly masculine characters, more corrupt police officers and government officials, more clumsily rendered racial and social dynamics, more mostly superfluous female villains, more shoot-outs, more groan-worthy dialogue, more chase scenes, more, more, more.
The Cloverfield Paradox (Watch Here) — The Cloverfield Paradox is a very bad movie, notwithstanding the terrific cast that director Julius Onah managed to assemble here. On paper, this is a phenomenal film: A sequel to Cloverfield produced by J.J. Abrams and set in outer space starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Debicki, Ziyi Zhang, and John Ortiz. I mean, holy shit, right? Who doesn’t want to see this movie? Even when I tell you that it’s awful, you’re going to have a hard time believing that a movie with that cast can possibly be as bad as I suggest it is. Well, it is, but many of you are still going to watch it, because how can you not with that cast, the fact that it’s a known property, and that it is essentially free? How bad can it be, really? Really bad.
The Ritual (Watch Here) — I don’t care that this is based on a book. I don’t know or care how the book ends. Bruckner set up an atmospheric and deeply eerie horror movie, then chucked it all away to make Spall a spitting berserker. It’s unbelievable and disappointing. And I can’t help but wonder if Bruckner lost faith in his concept, or just isn’t ready for feature-length horror yet.
A Very Murray Christmas (Watch Here) — Bill Murray’s Christmas special is, well, it’s pretty weird. It’s deliberately drab. The pacing and story and tone are all over the place. It definitely drags a lot of the time. But it’s also absolutely fantastic. It’s actually exactly what you would expect from a Christmas special starring Bill Murray, directed by Sophia Coppola. And in just under an hour, they manage to fit in a whole hell of a lot of songs.
Death Note (Watch Here) — Imagine you had the power to kill with just a wish. You might already have a name in mind. It’d be so easy. You just have to write down that name. It wouldn’t feel like murder, because it’s not like you were there, like you wielded the weapon. It’d be like a dream or a game. Not murder. You’d possess incredible power, incredible reach, and with no immediate consequences. You could change the world. Could you be trusted with this power? That’s the darkly intriguing premise of Death Note, the popular manga, written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, which was turned into a 37-episode anime, and now has been condensed into an American movie. The result is an adaptation that’s rushed, irksome, and above all else mediocre.
War Machine (Watch Here) — The film is inspired by Michael Hastings’s 2012 book titled The Operators, which is a behind-the-scenes look at the high-level military machinations around the war in Afghanistan, and in particular the downfall of General Stanley McChrystal, the man in charge of U.S. and international forces in the country. In fact, McChrystal’s downfall came about after Rolling Stone published a profile of the General, also written by Hastings, who spent a month with McChrystal and his closest men. The article depicted these men — the ones ultimately leading the U.S. policy in Afghanistan — getting “shitfaced” and insulting Vice President Biden, amongst other things. It got the General fired. The movie is a fictionalized adaptation of the book. General Stanley McChrystal is now General Glen McMahon, and played by a steel-haired, squinting Brad Pitt. His performance choices, from the gravelly voice to the constant waddling early morning jogs, are presumably an element of the “comedy.” To me, it was sort of like watching his character in Twelve Monkeys grow up and start impersonating Tommy Lee Jones. It was whiplash-inducing.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (Watch Here) — Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny debuted on Netflix and in a limited number of theatres on Friday, and it was… OK. Look, if you’re going to give me a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 15 years after the fact, I’d prefer that it be a solid two hours of Michelle Yeoh kicking people in the face, but it if can’t be that (why can’t it be that?), director Yuen Woo-Ping’s take on the material is acceptable. It’s not anywhere near as good as the original, but it was never going to be. Donnie Yen beasts people up. It’s cool. Quality-wise, it’s a Netflixer, so it’s pretty convenient that it was put out by Netflix.
Spectral (Watch Here) — Spectral sticks to the lessons of previous movies where it is the military against an unknown, possibly alien or supernatural foe. You have groups of soldiers learning to listen to an outsider and coming together in order to destroy the things threatening their lives. You’ve got montages of weapons being made and preparation taking place. There are some satisfying ideas in Spectral, but nothing ground-breaking. Instead of going for huge stars, awkward and unneeded backstories, and bloat, Spectral manages to pack in just what a viewer needs to enjoy the plot and journey placed before them. Nothing more, nothing less. In a sea of expensive garbage and remakes, that means a lot.
Ibiza (Watch Here) — Ibiza is largely a film built on banter, and in that respect, it feels a lot like hanging out with three drunk people for an entire weekend, which is to say: It vacillates between funny and annoying, and sometimes both. Bayer gets the plum Melissa McCarthy/Tiffany Haddish role, and in that respect, steals most of her scenes. Phoebe Robinson — who co-hosts 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams — is a very funny person, who is not given very much to work with, while Gillian Jacobs is largely muted, weirdly boxed in as the romantic lead. She spends most of the movie either whining about her job or mooning over Leo. She and Madden then spend their scenes awkwardly flirting, while also making a much bigger deal about their romance than they should for a couple who have only known each other for a few minutes.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture (Watch Here) — It tells the story of a comedy legend you probably don’t remember: Doug Kenney, one of the men who founded National Lampoon magazine and went on to co-write Animal House and Caddyshack. The film features a laundry list of actors you’ll recognize, including Joel McHale, Matt Walsh, Thomas Lennon, Matt Lucas, Natasha Lyonne, Emmy Rossum, Seth Green, Max Greenfield, and Joe Lo Truglio. And though there are no stand out acting moments, nothing fit for an Oscar reel, the balance the film strikes feels right somehow. The bad wigs, the puns, the breezy pace and the slapdash scene transitions that revel in the film’s artifice — all is as it should be. If you love biopics, this will probably leave you unsatisfied. But if you’re looking for something a little different, give A Futile And Stupid Gesture a chance.
Happy Anniversary (Watch Here) — Happy Anniversary is not a life-altering rom-com, but it’s genuine and honest and funny and teases out a lot of truths confronting relationships in their middle years, which gives it a leg up and some of the disappointing original Netflix movies, of late. It is precisely the kind of romcom that doesn’t get made anymore without the streaming service, and well worth it as a Saturday night date movie for a couple who has spent way too many Saturday nights watching Netflix movies.
Pee Wee’s Big Holiday (Watch Here) — It’s been over 30 years since Herman’s last big screen romp, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and nearly 26 since Pee-wee’s Playhouse wrapped. Yet Reubens slides back into his white loafers without missing a step. It helps that the guy hasn’t appeared to age, and thankfully neither has Pee-Wee. He still shies away from the girls who swoon for his bespoke grey suit. He still speaks in that signature silly voice, and proudly spouts impish catchphrases like “Let me let you let me go.” And he’s still a master of willfully childish physical comedy. One long take involving Herman “playing” a balloon to a rapt Amish community may sound like nothing special. But Reubens’s gift for guileless humor makes it giggle-fit hilarious.
Polka King (Watch Here) — Based on the documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King, The Polka King is shockingly true to life, revealing the stranger-than-fiction stories of fleecing fans, rigged beauty contests, and curious audiences with the pope. Married screenwriters and co-directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky* even pull dialogue from the mouths of the people who lived it, making the doc and its narrative sister film a fantastic DIY double-feature. But above all else, it’s Jack Black who makes this movie work, as well as willfully disturbing.
The Incredible Jessica James (Watch Here) — Overall, The Incredible Jessica James is pretty wonky, delivering a story whose heart is big, but whose path is meandering. Still, Jessica Williams makes it sing. Whether she’s dressing down a pushy Tindr date, firmly demanding her bestie to not masturbate while they talk on the phone, or dances madly about her apartment building to a song only she can hear, she is enthralling. Chris O’Dowd is reliably affable, and even a bit sexy as the enthusiastic lover who avoids the tired “what do you do for a living” question with a more apt for NYC version, “How do you pay your rent?” And their star powers combined carry us through Strouse’s more sanctimonious and sentimental moments.
Polka King (Watch Here) — Based on the documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King, The Polka King is shockingly true to life, revealing the stranger-than-fiction stories of fleecing fans, rigged beauty contests, and curious audiences with the pope. Married screenwriters and co-directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky even pull dialogue from the mouths of the people who lived it, making the doc and its narrative sister film a fantastic DIY double-feature. But above all else, it’s Jack Black who makes this movie work, as well as willfully disturbing. Forbes’ directorial debut Infinitely Polar Bear showed this filmmaker’s skill for telling complicated family stories with humor and humanity. In The Polka King, she and her husband maintain that standard, but amp up the lunacy, star power, and energy to create something not only sensationally fun, but also enticingly thought-provoking.
1922 (Watch Here) — 1922 plays like a compact, horror noir, and director Zak Hilditch (who also adapted Stephen King’s story) keeps things moving along at an efficient pace. Thomas Jane is terrific, speaking almost entirely through gritted teeth, as his sanity slowly leaks away. Molly Parker also turns in a fine performance, mostly a rotting, rat-filled corpse that haunts Wilfred’s nightmares, both sleeping and awake. The story is told by Wilfred as his murder confession eight years after the event, and while the story itself is somewhat predictable, there are reasons not to rely entirely on the account of the narrator, creating some interesting ambiguities. Ultimately, 1922 is not an earth-shattering film, but it’s a solid, well-crafted story featuring strong performances and a few moments of ick that will get under viewers’ skin. It’s the perfect kind of film for late-night or mid-afternoon Netflix viewing, so if your Netflix account is beckoning you to watch, heed its advice.
Win It All (Watch Here) — With Joe Swanberg’s most recent effort, Win It All, the weight of the film rides almost exclusively on star Jake Johnson, who is in virtually every scene. Johnson plays Eddie Garret, a degenerate gambler who regulars at a Chinatown casino. One day he is asked to hold onto a bag full of cash while the bag’s owner does a quick stint in jail. “…This is an interesting opportunity,” Johnson’s Garret says to the bag. And you can see where this is going. Johnson has always been an actor who is both likable and outrageously funny, while always seeming to have some darkness or pathos operating behind the scenes. All of that is in full play in Win It All, and as likable as Johnson is when he’s playing the lighter moments, he absolutely kills it when asked to dig into the sadness and horror of an addiction that his Garret knows he needs to walk away from but just cannot. Win It All has a wonderful lived-in tone and style, thanks to how Swanberg films and edits his movies. It’s tense, funny, well-structured and carried by strong performances.
Like Father (Watch Here) — Netflix’s Like Father is basically the “We Are Family” of Netflix movies, and that’s not at all meant to be a dis. It’s a general audiences crowd-pleaser, a father-daughter comedy wrapped in a romantic-comedy formula and belted out to absolute perfection by Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammar. There is not an original moment in the entire film, but it hits all the right beats and goes down easy, like a cold PBR on a hot summer day. Like Set It Up, it is quintessentially Netflix, the perfect movie to watch on your laptop on a lazy Saturday night. It will not change your life, but it will entertain and charm you for a couple of hours without insulting your intelligence.
Tallulah (Watch Here) — Ellen Page stars as a troubled youth. But instead of a preggo teen with a million quips, she plays the titular Tallulah, a homeless young woman on a desperate search for the boyfriend who abandoned her. Allison Janney co-stars as the MIA beau’s mother Margo, who’s going through her own private hell of divorce and depression when Tallulah and a bouncing (stolen) baby show up at her posh apartment door. But the crucial third lead of Tallulah is Tammy Blanchard, who plays the hopped up bad mom Carolyn. Perhaps all this melodrama and deeply flawed anti-heroism makes it sound like Tallulah will be a heart-wrenching watch. But thanks to the radiant warmth of Heder and her cast—which also boasts Uzo Aduba, John Benjamin Hickey, David Zayas, Felix Solis, and Zachary Quinto—the film never falls into torturous tear-jerking, and finds its way to as happy an ending as you could reasonably hope for.
Psychokinesis (Watch Here) — Yeon Sang-ho, director of the thrilling 2016 zombie flick Train To Busan, has tackled a new genre with the Netflix film Psychokinesis: the superhero movie. And I’ll be honest — this new film never quite reaches the heights of his earlier effort. Both use their respective genres to comment on class, social issues, and — in particular — fatherhood. But Psychokinesis is a slower, almost lackadaisical affair, without the edge-of-your-seat intensity, surprising humor, and gut-punching dread that made Train To Busan such a wild ride (pun oh-so-intended). Instead, Psychokinesis works best if read as a sort of refreshing antidote to the world of MARVEL! and DC! we find ourselves in today. It’s a pointed reaction to the exhausted “Superhero Origin Story”, one that brings the genre back down to earth and mines success by subverting expectations every step of the way.
6 Balloons (Watch Here) — 6 Balloons is a searing depiction of an addicted father and his co-dependent sister, and there’s something about seeing Dave Franco and Abbi Jacobsen in those roles that makes it so much more relatable. They’re like people we know. A young father. A woman who just wants to give her boyfriend a party. We have no idea how Seth ended up in the situation he is in, but it hardly matters. It really could happen to almost anyone. Addiction is an ugly, painful, horrifying thing that takes sons away from mothers, fathers away from daughters. 6 Balloons personalizes that, and it makes that story our own, or at least one that could be our own. It’s a powerful, restrained, and weirdly beautiful film about addiction, about co-dependence, about siblings, and about family, and about that one night when a sister had to buy her brother heroin so that he wouldn’t die.
I Don’t Feel at Home In This World Anymore (Watch Here) — First time director Macon Blair’s cumbersomely titled I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, which he also wrote, is a straightforward but nifty independent thriller. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore starts slowly and contemplatively in one genre and crescendos until a hell of a final act that seems to take place in another genre altogether, one that has more in common with Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. However, the two genres play well together. Melanie Lynskey is — as always — superb, as she evolves into this generation’s Parker Posey, while Elijah Wood continues a streak of oddball indie roles designed to ensure that no one ever finds him sexually appealing again. It’s not an earth-shattering film, but it makes for solid Netflix fare for a Saturday night, and it’s a must-see for the Lynskey enthusiasts among us.
Cargo (Watch Here) — I was too emotionally exhausted by Cargo to reflect much on its politics. It’s only now, a day later, that I can organize my thoughts enough to put that stuff into words. I’m still mostly struck by just how hard the film was to watch. The horror of the film comes from its all-encompassing dread: that you truly DO know where it’s going. But the journey toward that inevitable end still has room for beauty and triumph and pain and heartbreak. And maybe the fact that there is a journey at all, despite the inevitable, is another part of makes us human.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Watch Here) — The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part anthology, with each chapter exploring a different trope of the Western genre. Sharpshooters, bank robbers, prospectors, traveling entertainers, pioneers on the Oregon Trail, and stagecoach travelers all pop up, and the locations — some filmed in New Mexico — are gorgeous and evocative of the Old West. Put bluntly, however,these segments aren’t equally strong. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is very much a Coen Brothers movie, and I mean that both as a compliment and as a critique. It has a macabre sense of humor, flirts with the eerie, and is very dialogue-heavy, but it’s also very dialogue-heavy and imbalanced narratively.
Dumplin (Watch Here) — The story of Dumplin’ is slight, but as any good pageant queen will tell you, the devil is in the details. Dumplin’ is low stakes in terms of narrative but high emotion at all times. Not gonna lie, I cried through like 40 percent of this film, and it wasn’t all because of the Dolly Parton music. But yes, the all-Dolly soundtrack, including several new songs, is a major selling point for the film. Ms. Parton is the real guiding light of Dumplin’, the ever-wise dispenser of wisdom to misfits everywhere, one who’s always in on the joke and ten steps ahead of everyone else. Yes, you know where Dumplin’ is going and how everything will wrap up. That’s not the point the film or Willowdean want to make. It’s a simple story of minor revolution through the radical act of being yourself on purpose. — Kayleigh Donaldson
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Watch Here) — The movie is fun and winsome. Things get a bit clunky as references to John Hughes movies are wedged in, but this overeagerness aside, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a satisfyingly charming and romantic comedy about teen love and tough realizations. But Almost-Ruffalo (Noah Centineo) is its very best bit. There are plenty of cute boys in teen movies, but few have this kind of charisma that makes them perfectly crush-worthy. He’s not just roguishly handsome, but playful and funny with a dynamic energy and a bit of a wild streak. All this brews to make a perfect first-boyfriend fantasy, the kind you dreamed of as a girl and the kind you may still reminisce over. This makes To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before a total treat and a perfect pick for a night of Netflix and Girls Night in.
Private Life (Watch Here) — In Tamara Jenkins’ first movie since The Savages (what? How is that possible?), she explores a marriage strained by efforts to have a child through failed in-vitro fertilization and adoption. Those efforts take on a form of addiction — it becomes an all-consuming life-defining obsession that eventually feels less about having a kid and more about winning the process. That process eventually entails trying to use a donor egg from their niece, who moves in with them, adding layers of awkwardness to an already maddening, emotional ordeal. I wouldn’t call it a funny movie, but there are funny moments, and Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti go a long way toward mining the entertainment value out of a very specific form of frustration.
Bird Box (Watch Here) — Sandra Bullock’s great performance aside, Susannah Bier’s film, adapted from the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, is a little uneven and some of the dialogue is clunky and cliched. But the music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is suspenseful, the cinematography by Salvatore Totino really frames what Malorie and the children are facing during this river journey, and the spookiness of invisible beings urging you to harm yourself and others is, while familiar, nevertheless effective. The idea of sacrifice is a common theme throughout Bird Box: What else are the people who are hurting themselves doing than sacrificing themselves to the will of these unseen entities? Isn’t putting herself in danger to protect these children exactly what Malorie is doing, too? But what is worth the loss of self, and what isn’t? Maybe there’s a simple answer to that, but Bird Box complicates it enough to make it quite compelling.
Land of Steady Habits (Watch Here) — The poignant, funny, lovely and thoughtful movies of writer and director Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Please Give) feel well suited to Netflix, so bringing The Land of Steady Habits to the streaming service feels like a no-brainer. Steady Habits stars Ben Mendelsohn, who plays a character who quits his lucrative job and divorces his wife (Edie Falco) in an effort to escape the monotonous rut of his life. That decision comes with its own host of problems, however, as he struggles to parent his son, date someone new (Connie Britton) despite stress-related impotence, and balance his need to be a parental figure to a teenage kid with a drug problem and his desire to be the kid’s friend and drug companion. It’s a spectacular character drama that tackles middle-aged malaise from Holofcener’s insightful and bittersweet perspective.
Set It Up (Watch Here) — All we really want from a Netflix movie is adequacy, a little charm, a few great jokes, and solid leads. Netflix’s latest, Set It Up, is absolutely perfect in that regard. It is the quintessential Netflix comedy. It’s the perfect movie to watch on your laptop while lying in bed, and that is not by any means an insult. Granted, it’s a movie that I would’ve been disappointed in if I’d spent money to watch it on the big screen, but on Netflix? I kind of loved it, even if it is as cookie-cutter a rom-com as can be.
Hold the Dark (Watch Here) — Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the phenomenal Green Room is another intense, almost suffocatingly violent, and unnerving film about a man (Jeffrey Wright) who accepts an invitation from a young mother (Riley Keogh) to come to Alaska and track down the wolf that killed her son. That’s not quite how it unfolds, however, because when the woman’s husband (Alexander Skarsgård) returns from the Iraq War to news that his son is dead, a violent chain of events unfolds. Hold the Dark is grim, unsettling, and brutal, but in its own way, weirdly beautiful. Jeffrey Wright turns in a powerfully quiet performance, but Skarsgård brings the piercing menace that at times makes this feel like a horror film.
Little Prince (Watch Here) — Considering this French/Canadian movie was demoted from a US theatrical run to a Netflix release, I suspected The Little Prince might be some clunky substandard fare. Clunky, a bit, but in the lovable way of Terry Gilliam fairy tales, which chase down curious characters instead of getting too caught up in plot. Substandard? Far from it. Osborne integrates various animation aesthetics in the storytelling, making this fun film visually sumptuous. The animation used for the girl’s world has soft edges, and muted colors, while that of the pilot’s stories are vibrant hues, and characters folded as if animated origami. The novella’s watercolor illustrations come to life on the pages the pilot sends into the girl’s bedroom as carefully crafted airplanes. And as the Little Prince becomes more and more real to her, the animation evolves to something bright but more dimensional. It’s richly designed, and gorgeous. Honestly, I’d tell you to watch The Little Prince for its enchanting animation alone. That it’s poignant, thoughtful, and warmly thrilling, that’s just icing.
The Meyerowitz Stories (Watch Here) — Disproving Tolstoy’s adage that all happy families are alike but all unhappy families are unhappy in different ways, the Meyerowitz family at the center of Noah Baumbach’s new film looks an awful lot like the Berkmans in The Squid and the Whale. In that film, the teenage children suffered the harsh divorce of their parents, who seem to think precious little of their children’s wellbeing; in this new joint, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Elizabeth Marvell play grown-up children who resent their parents for their treatment of them when young. In returning to this subject that feels so deeply personal (although with a less caustic, more forgiving eye than before), Baumbach produces some of his most honest and comedic material.
Beasts of No Nation (Watch Here) — After awing critics and audiences with the moody marvel that was True Detective season one, director Cary Fukunaga dove into the ambitious adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s harrowing novel about a young boy forced into the grim life of a child soldier. It’s a topic that could easily have gone into soul-crushingly dark territory, but Fukunaga’s sharp script threads humanity and hope throughout, leading the audience as it does the film’s pint-sized protagonist played by mesmerizing newcomer Abraham Attah. His face spikes with pain and fear as his narration gives voice to this child lost in war and made plaything to a charismatic and cruel warlord. Idris Elba deftly channels his alarming charms into this vile villain, making for a purposefully jarring experience. As for Attah, his performance feels so effortless and natural, you might forget you’re watching a narrative film as opposed to a documentary. Beasts of No Nation is brutal, beautiful, and streaming on Netflix. Don’t miss it.
Gerald’s Game (Watch Here) — What follows after the initial set-up is nothing short of an acting clinic by Gugino, playing both herself chained to the bed and the angel on her shoulder hallucination. The movie is almost entirely composed of dialogues, between her and herself, between her and the conjured ghost of Gerald. They snipe and debate, cajoling her into piecing together tiny victories even as they hound her about her past, about her relationship with Gerald, about the nature of fear. Those chains are carved of our scars, which aren’t just injuries that never heal, but eternal reminders of horror that happened. Whenever my eyes flicker over my scar, the trauma is there again. For my entire life, I will never look at my limb and not be there again in the heart of that horror, playing over and over again like an old-time kinetoscope. Emotional scars are not where something hasn’t healed, so much as where a memory of horror has been frozen in amber. The secret of trauma is that there is only one trauma. And so whenever we confront horror again, we relive the old horrors in parallel. Every pain, every startling jolt, every surge of fear, and the same scenes play out in our mind’s eye. This is a story that understands that part of horror. And for all that horror, it is fundamentally a story of deeply earnest hope and optimism. Because the scars might never fade, but maybe there is hope that they won’t always be chains.
Okja (Watch Here) — Written by Bong Joon Ho and Jon Ronson, Okja offers escapism with a generous dose of politics that makes it fascinating, funky, and fabulous. It’s not for all ages. It’s not for everyone. But to those craving something strange and daring, Okja is a gamble worth taking.
Roma (Watch Here) — Roma is about the downfall of a civilization. From the first shot, it is clear that Roma will be an exceptional film. Every moment of happiness these women try to find is marred by someone succeeding where they failed, or death. Yet, like all women, they persist. Executed to near perfection, this movie serves as a nostalgic time capsule of Mexico in the early ’70s. Every performance is alive and intriguing.
Mudbound (Watch Here)— An American masterpiece from filmmaker Dee Rees, the Netflix film is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, has an evocative score from Tamar-Kali Brown, and boasts a fantastic ensemble with Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks, and Carey Mulligan. It is a reminder of the brutality of American history, of the weight of generations of institutionalized bondage and familial racism, and of the possibility of love as survival. It is worthy of being discussed alongside The Grapes of Wrath and Giant and The Deer Hunter and Days of Heaven and other classics that analyze our relationship with the land and the promise of the American dream.