Netflix’s February 2021 slate is highlighted by a splashy trio of new releases: Oscar hopeful “Malcolm & Marie” (acquired for a cool $30 million during a COVID summer bidding war), frothy TIFF pick-up “I Care a Lot,” and “To All the Boys: Always and Forever,” the final installment of what has become one of the streaming giant’s most popular original franchises. But this month’s lineup is most exciting for the attention it calls to (a very small) handful of essential new and new-ish independent films that slipped under the radar and never received the attention they deserved.
Forget Valentine’s Day, this February is all about the ones that got away.
Hong Khaou’s “Monsoon” is one of the loveliest films that snuck out onto virtual screens last year, but its arrival on the world’s largest streaming platform will should allow it to make a much stronger impact. Ditto Sarah Gavron’s widely adored coming-of-age story “Rocks,” which made some noise over in the U.K. but never got the same chance on this side of the Atlantic.
And while Ava DuVernay has become a household name (and one of the best ambassadors of the Netflix brand), her pre-“Selma” work has still been hard to come by. That’s about to change in a big way, as her hard-to-find but unforgettably poignant “Middle of Nowhere” finally gets a platform worthy of its lead performance. Even the Martin Scorsese movie that’s coming back to the streamer this month is one of his most under-appreciated.
Here are the seven best movies new to Netflix in February 2021.
7. “Malcolm & Marie” (2021)
Conceived, shot, and sold to Netflix in the summer months after the coronavirus brought the country to a standstill, Sam Levinson’s exasperatingly gorgeous “Malcolm & Marie” is a lot like the two people who lend its title their names: confident and insecure in equal measure, stuffed to the gills with big ideas but convinced of nothing beyond its own frenzied existence, and reverent of Hollywood’s past at the same time it’s trying to stake a new claim for its future. John David Washington plays a hotshot director who’s just come from the explosive premiere of his breakthrough film. Zendaya is the long-suffering girlfriend who Malcolm forgot to thank before the movie, even though she was the muse whose troubled past inspired it. Needless to say, it’s going to be a bumpy night.
The motor-mouthed drama that follows has been compared (favorably and not) to a John Cassavetes film, written off as a self-absorbed clap-back at Levinson’s critics, and loved and loathed by early audiences in almost equal measure. This critic fell somewhere in the middle, and was more than a little tortured about it. An excerpt from IndieWire’s review: “Despite the undeniable charge of watching the ‘Euphoria’ creator fashion such a flamboyantly romantic spectacle during the sterility of our Zoom year, Levinson’s high-contrast, low-reward drama is also a stunning example of how airless a film can become when it’s shot in a bubble.”
Whatever the case, “Malcolm & Marie” feels like the first wide release movie of 2021 that “everyone” is going to have an opinion about, and for better or worse you actually have to see it to earn one of those.
Available to stream February 5.
6. “Space Sweepers” (2021)
Yes, this February is all about the indies, but it wouldn’t be a new month of Netflix content if the streamer didn’t sneak the world premiere of a giant blockbuster spectacle onto the service without almost any fanfare whatsoever. A fun and scrappy Korean epic about a ragtag team of intergalactic trash collectors who risk their lives to wrangle space junk traveling at 10 times the speed of a bullet just so an Elon Musk type can launch his orbiting corporate utopia in peace and join the rest of his tax bracket on an edenic satellite away from our dying Earth, “Space Sweepers” was meant to be a major tentpole of the Korean summer movie season last year, but… well, that didn’t happen. Instead, it’s the silliest and ambitious sci-fi extravaganza that’s being released around the world this month.
Directed by Jo Sung-hee (of “A Werewolf Boy” fame), “Space Sweepers” may hoover up genre clichés like runaway star junk and lean on special effects that offer more personality than polygons, but its story — which starts in earnest when our heroes salvage a humanoid child robot that’s billed as a weapon of mass destruction — offers a heavy serving of pulp fun. Best of all, Jo’s cluttered, blue-collar, and semi-cartoonish vision of early space capitalism might be the first live-action movie that captures something close to the jazzy chaos of “Cowboy Bebop,” which might help lower the anxiety of fans who are more than a little nervous about Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of the anime classic.
Available to stream February 5.
5. “I Care a Lot” (2021)
It’s been six long years since “Gone Girl” star Rosamund Pike proved that she can be a lethal femme fatale when given the chance, and J Blakeson’s wickedly satisfying “I Care a Lot” gives her a lot more than that. Here’s what Kate Erbland had to say about this cold shiv of a movie after its TIFF premiere last fall:
I Care a Lot,” a pulpy social thriller that might be better suited for midnight movie positioning, is at its most purely enjoyable when it’s leaning right into just how very, very bad people can be. And star Rosamund Pike hasn’t been this good at being bad since “Gone Girl.” “There’s no such thing as good people,” Marla Grayson (Pike) sneers during the opening credits of J Blakeson’s icy thriller, as she introduces the closest thing she has to a personal ethos. Clearly the product of some self-reinvention — Marla makes mention once of being poor, and damn if she will ever feel impoverished again — Marla’s life is glossy, slick, and deeply unwell. That’s exactly how she likes it.
A professional, court-appointed legal guardian, Marla makes her bones “caring” for old folks who have nobody else to do it (or, in the case of Macon Blair’s desperate son, no one that Marla and her cronies think is suitable for the gig). When Marla and her partner Fran pick up new client Jennifer Peterson (the matchless Dianne Wiest), Blakeson shows us exactly what the pair are capable of, which is nothing short of horrifying. With a slight twist in either direction, “I Care a Lot” could be a horror film or a wrenching drama, but Blakeson’s dark humor keeps it feeling, even in its worst moments, hugely entertaining. Mostly, though, it’s a showcase for Pike, who makes a meal out of her role (and that’s to say nothing of the strong supporting turns from Peter Dinklage and Chris Messina, who also vibe to the film’s wacky, mean wavelength).
Available to stream February 19.
4. “Inception” (2010)
At his best, Christopher Nolan is both a showman and a storyteller, and all of his narrative gamesmanship — all of his dead wives and steady push-in shots and bombastic Hans Zimmer motifs — are in the service of an irreducible cinematic pleasure. Yes, “Inception” is a forceful drama about guilt and redemption and the power of ideas, but more than anything it’s an elaborate excuse for a hog-wild celebration of what movies can do. It’s about the pure joy of playing with relative time, of cross-cutting between four different planes of existence, of packing several different genres (heist movies, Bond epics, etc.) into a veritable playground of raw imagination.
It’s about the visceral momentum of doing things that can’t be done on the page, on stage, or even on television with its stops and starts — it’s about using the fundamental elements of film grammar to create a coherent whole that sustains itself like a spinning top. More than just the most idiosyncratic blockbuster of the 21st century, “Inception” is a testament to the incredible power of dreaming with our eyes open.
Available to stream February 1.
3. “Monsoon” (2019)
Henry Golding became a Hollywood leading man overnight thanks to “Crazy Rich Asians,” and subsequent roles in films like “Last Christmas” have suggested that’s all he ever wanted as an actor. But as Ryan Lattanzio explains in his review of the low-key and wonderful indie “Monsoon,” it seems there’s more Golding than meets the eye.
Hong Khaou’s lovely “Monsoon,” the Chinese-British filmmaker’s first feature since 2014’s “Lilting,” unfolds in dulcet, almost ASMR-inducing tones, but that doesn’t mean it lacks for big emotional impact. Kit (a cool and compelling Henry Golding) is a gay British-Vietnamese man returning to his birth country for the first time in three decades, and he’s lost in translation. Unable to speak the language, and now spiritually disconnected from his origins, Kit journeys first to Saigon, and then Hanoi, in search of a place to scatter his family’s ashes. While adrift in Saigon, Kit meets up with Lewis (an engrossing Parker Sawyers, who played Barack Obama in “Southside with You”). There’s a melancholy vibe to their courtship, especially knowing that, given their geography, it could have an expiration date. There’s also tension between the two men, as Lewis’ father was an American who fought in the Vietnam War, but that ideological split also allows Kit to ask questions and do deeper spiritual digging about where he came from, and why.
As Kit, Golding is a swank tower of understatement, conveying confusion and alienation with few words. His most telling moments often involve staring out windows or sitting on trains, ruminating in the in-between of things. “Monsoon” is a quiet, solitary affair designed to communicate how isolating it can be to travel alone in a big city, especially one you have a fragmentary relationship to. This is a gentle and joyous film not to be slept on, even as its low-key aura lulls you into a soothed state of mind.
Available to stream February 13.
2. “Middle of Nowhere” (2012)
Ava DuVernay became a household name with “Selma,” but it was already clear that she had the potential to be a major filmmaker well before her Oscar-winning breakthrough. Her micro-budget 2012 drama “Middle of Nowhere” — about a Compton nurse who’s struggling to find a way forward after her husband is sentenced to eight years in prison — has been one of this young century’s hidden gems since the day it came out, and former soap opera star Emayatzy Corinealdi (in her first lead film role) is lightning in a bottle as a woman whose life is suddenly no longer under her control.
Hailing Corinealdi’s turn as part of IndieWire’s countdown of the best movie performances of the last decade, Tambay Obenson wrote: “Graceful and dignified at all times, Corinealdi cuts a singular portrait of a woman persevering through hardship. And not just persevering, but also confronting hardship — standing by her man even when she’s repelled by his actions. Ruby is fiery when she needs to be, but never falls into melodramatic traps; her eyes radiate with an innocence that only makes it easier for the audience to see the secondhand guilt that’s weighing her down.”
It’s exciting to think that after almost 10 years of being so hard to find, “Middle of Nowhere” is about to be virtually everywhere.
Available to stream February 11.
1. “Shutter Island” (2010)
Even the heaviest Martin Scorsese movies are infinitely rewatchable — there’s just a centrifugal pull to the focus and kineticism of his filmmaking, as anyone who’s spent the last 25 years being sucked into random parts of “Casino” on HBO could tell you — but “Shutter Island” is one of the few that feels like it shapeshifts before your eyes during repeat viewings. A briny Dennis Lehane adaptation that masquerades as a crime thriller in order to disguise the psychological horror that’s churning below the surface, Scorsese’s pulpfest has been largely overshadowed by a twist ending that relies on the “Spellbound”-level brain science of the story’s post-war setting (spoiler alert: Leonardo DiCaprio’s “duly appointed federal marshal” might have a secret or two).
It’s a rug pull for the ages, one that so crudely peels back the movie’s central mystery that you might feel a bit cheated by its contrivances. Dare to revisit the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane, however, and it becomes a different thing altogether. So too does the film itself — what once seemed like a puzzle with an easy solution blurs into a tragedy with no escape. Few Scorsese characters are more painfully haunted than DiCaprio’s “Teddy,” a man who’s been trapped in a prison of his own trauma for so long, he can no longer bear to live with himself.
Available to stream February 1.