Last week, in response to the news that Netflix had finally cracked the Cannes competition lineup (a breakthrough that inspired the Federation of French Cinemas to question if a movie that skips theaters should even be considered “a cinematographic work”), I wrote about the streaming giant and how they’ve performed as a distributor. My conclusions were, uh, not super favorable. Criticizing the company’s penchant for pricing out the competition, hoarding the hottest indies on the festival circuit, and burying them on their site without the benefit of a proper release, I argued that Netflix isn’t a distributor so much as “a graveyard with unlimited viewing hours,” and that “it doesn’t release movies, it inters them.” It’s a problem that extends to the well-funded features that Netflix produces themselves, a problem that’s only going to get worse as those titles continue to get better.
Something that I neglected to mention in the piece — and which I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in the days since it was published — is how the proliferation of streaming options has required critics to be pivot from being advocates to being curators as well. There are a zillion new avenues to watch movies these days, but all of those streets are filled with cracks, and all of those cracks are filled with vital classic and contemporary cinema (or, in Netflix’s case, filled with contemporary cinema).
So, in the spirit of meeting our brave new world head-on, I’ve highlighted seven Netflix Originals that are worth seeking out and streaming today.
Barack Obama came to lead America in large part because he is America, a one-man melting pot whose vagabond life was driven towards a singular destiny. He knows what it means to be an outsider in this country, to be rejected for attempting to make good on the promise of his homeland. He did drugs. He went to Film Forum. He didn’t make every decision based on how it might affect his political career. And, once upon a time, he went by the name “Barry.” Set in 1981, when the future President was attending Columbia University and struggling to negotiate between whiteness and blackness, Vikram Gandhi’s film is much more than another cutesy time piece about 44 (in other words, this ain’t “Southside With You”). Backstopped by Devon Terrell’s brilliant lead performance (and helped out by a huge assist from Anya Taylor-Joy, as a composite of Obama’s old girlfriends), this is an urgent testimony to the power of pluralism, a movie that uses the story of a bi-racial man to argue that being American means not having to pick a side, means not having to be white or black at the expense of being anything else.
Making good on the promise of 2014’s “The One I Love,” writer-director Charlie McDowell returns with a provocative slice of theoretical sci-fi that dives even deeper into the rift between fantasy and reality. Set roughly 18 minutes after Dr. Thomas Harber (Robert Redford) has scientifically proven the existence of an afterlife, “The Discovery” leverages its high-concept premise into a contained family drama that’s less about death than it is the things that mortality forces into focus. Jason Segel plays Harber’s eldest son, a skeptic who’s deeply troubled by the pandemic of suicides that have been triggered by the discovery — arriving at his father’s Rhode Island fortress to find that the good doctor is more or less leading a cult, he meets an emotionally stunted girl (Rooney Mara) and begins searching for the answers that have eluded our species since the dawn of time. By turns resoundingly human and regretfully half-baked, “The Discovery” doesn’t quite stick the landing, but it’s still a singular examination of how people are often shaped by the roads they choose not to take.
“You’ve got clit, I like that.” It’s an unusual expression, but it’s enough to convince Dounia (the sensational Oulaya Amamra) — a Muslim teenager living in a low-income housing project outside of Paris — to drop out of vocational school and commit herself to a life of crime. After all, it’s probably better than any compliment she’s ever received before, and all the more meaningful coming from Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), the baddest drug dealer in the banlieue. In a film that flips gender conventions on their ass, a film where the girls are tough and the guys are eye candy, balls would only get in the way. A vital and volatile debut that has ultimately has way more energy than it knows what to do with, Houda Benyamina’s “Divines” tells a scrappy coming-of-age story about a place where women are encouraged to follow their individual dreams so long as they don’t have a chance of escaping their collective nightmare. If you liked Céline Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” then this is essential viewing. And if you haven’t seen “Girlhood,” it’s also on Netflix, and you’ve got a killer double-feature in your future.
“I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
Netflix didn’t know that Macon Blair’s directorial debut would take home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance when the company bought it, but it just so happened that this delightfully anarchic black comedy became the first fest winner to skip theaters altogether and premiere on Netflix. A hysterical and hyper-violent morality play for our fucked-up times, “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.” tells the story of a squeamish nursing assistant (the great Melanie Lynskey) who teams up with her endearingly psychotic neighbor (the great Elijah Wood) for some vigilante revenge on the people who robbed her house. The result is a wry, Coen brothers-esque adventure that plays like a comic riff on the bruising thrillers (e.g. “Green Room”) that Blair has made his childhood pal Jeremy Saulnier. It’s the best Sundance winner in years, and one of the best 2017 movies you can watch on Netflix, Original or otherwise.
“Into the Inferno”
Werner Herzog may be going through a rough patch at the moment — “Queen of the Desert” and “Salt and Fire” both came out on the same day earlier this month, and both represented new lows for the legendary filmmaker — but his inimitable documentary work is as delightful and death-defying as ever. “Into the Inferno” is about volcanoes, but that’s a trivial detail. Every Werner Herzog documentary is really about the same two self-contradictory things: The impermanence of human existence, and the myth of Werner Herzog. This hypnotic, hilarious, and deeply humbling quasi-sequel of sorts to 2007’s “Encounters at the End of the World” offers a staggering amount of insight into both subjects.
Accompanied by charming Cambridge volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer (whom we see Herzog meet in some unforgettable b-roll from the shoot of “Encounters”), the teutonic legend travels a lap around the world — even making a brief stop in North Korea — pondering the insignificance of man and wondering what it is that volcanoes dream about. He returns with some very strange new friends and incredible footage of the Earth at its angriest. But even in this molten stew of eccentric characters, Herzog remains the most interesting person on screen.
“Print the Legend”
Ostensibly a doc about the cutthroat rivalry between the two companies that were vying for dominance during the early days of the 3D printing revolution, Luis Lopez and Clay Tweel’s “Print the Legend” starts much closer to “Silicon Valley” than it does to science-fiction. But as soon as gun rights activist Cody Wilson shows up and begins testing the semi-automatic weapons that he printed in the privacy of his own property (using materials that were both easily obtained and thoroughly unmonitored), the film switches gears and become a chilling look at the tomorrow that we’re inventing for ourselves. The film combines corporate intrigue and reckless futurism into a fascinating (and terrifying) portrait of how capitalism literally shapes the world to come.
Anchored by a ridiculously charismatic performance from actress Grace Van Patten, Adam Leon’s warm and winsome follow-up to SXSW 2013 winner “Gimme the Loot” offers a modern riff on classic Hollywood comedies like “It Happened One Night.” Danny (Callum Turner) is a sweet-natured kid who’s just trying to keep his head straight and do right by his family, so he’s not quite sure how to reconcile those agendas when his brother calls from prison and begs him to make a shady drop-off. One accidental switcheroo later, and Danny is snagged together with a girl named Ellie, the two kids falling in love as they’re sent on a wild goose chase around the outer fringes of New York City. Shot at the height of summer and sweltering in that singularly ripe Big Apple humidity, “Tramps” is delightful to the core, diverting by design but told with the confidence of someone who can endow even the lightest fare with a real sense of weight. Save it in your queue for a hot summer day and it’ll feel like a breath of fresh air.
“Selma” was hardly the beginning of Ava DuVernay’s filmmaking career (check out “Middle of Nowhere”), but “13th” made it clear that she was just still just getting started. Part history lesson and part gut-check, DuVernay’s regrettably urgent documentary leverages a single statistic — the United States represents 5% of the global population, but 25% of the prison population — into a lucid, comprehensive, and galvanizing film about the history of African American disenfranchisement. Merciless and fueled by moral fervor, “13th” combines well-chosen archival footage with a helpful array of talking heads to create a context for so much of the rot that exists at the heart of our country today. The climactic sequence, built around one of Trump’s campaign speeches about “the good old days,” is a profound and peerlessly damning indictment of where we’ve come from, and where we’re heading. That something like “13th” is available to stream around the world at the click of a button is proof enough that there’s some merit to what Netflix is doing.