In 2013, Netflix commissioned its first original series, House of Cards. Two years later the streaming platform released its first original movie, Beasts of No Nation, and has, since then, continued to release a steady stream of films that are slowly beginning to rival and compete with Hollywood and traditional theatrical releases. Here are 5 of this year’s best Netflix Originals.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – Dir. Noah Baumbach
To kick things off in fifth spot is Noah Baumbach’s funny, smart, dysfunctional family drama centred on the eponymous Meyerowitz clan.
Sitting at the head of the proverbial table is patriarch Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a college professor and former sculptor who briefly flirted with the promise of being held in high regard. Flanking him to his left and right are the Meyerowitz children, of whom there are three, Danny (Adam Sandler), Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller). All have suffered under and through their father’s insufferable narcissism, resulting in the manifestation of deep seated dysfunction, insecurity and rage, all of which has a tendency to bubble up and over when in each other’s company.
The film is an ensemble piece with stand-out performances from all involved, and divided into chapters that are loosely structured around the kid’s attempts to put on a retrospective of their father’s sculpting work. But, what’s really at play here are the relationships between the siblings & their father and, Baumbach confidently crafts a flowing film that captures the texture of their lives. It’s a bittersweet treat.
Gerald’s Game – Dir. Mike Flanagan
Stephen King has had a great year with It alone, but Netflix has also churned out a remarkable amount of King’s back catalogue this year. There was the revamp of Frank Darabont’s take on The Mist in the form of a television series and 1922. But, by far the best King adaptation available on the streaming service juggernaut is Gerald’s Game.
Jesse (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) hope to rekindle the dying embers of their marriage through a sexcation away at a beautiful lake house. Things take a turn for the worse when Gerald, in the throes of some raunchy role play, has a heart attack, leaving his wife strapped to the bed.
It’s a chilling chamber piece that manages to stay grounded throughout the course of its runtime. Flanagan confidently turns what could quite easily have been a snooze-fest into a veritable thrill-fest as Jesse’s fears manifest themselves in the all too familiar forms that keep you awake in bed late at night. As the hours creep by, Jesse teeters closer and closer to a total disconnect from her sanity and must muster all her strength and wits to survive and find a way to free herself.
Gugino puts in an excellent performance given her physical limitations, and the film’s sexual and marital abuse threads point to a message that extends beyond fighting for survival in the bedroom and to fighting back against male domination and abuse.
Okja – Dir. Joon-ho Bong
This Netflix film, by director Joon-ho Bong, caused quite a stir at Cannes. It was booed at the screening, or rather the Netflix ident was, and ruffled the feathers of the French film board (CNC). So much so that they implemented a new rule to take effect at next years’ festival: only films with a theatrical release in France will be eligible for submission at Cannes.
Okja, the product of a genetic programme run by multinational agrochemical company, the Mirando Corporation, is a giant, hippo-like super-pig with the heart and grace of a cuddly, flatulent Labrador. Unbeknownst to Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn), the young Korean girl who has befriended and grown up with the creature, Okja, like the many others of her kind, has been bred to be turned into food. When the Mirando Corporation comes to claim their stock, after a 10 year growing period, Mija must battle to save her porcine friend from the horrors of the slaughterhouse.
The result is a biting satirical commentary on corporate capitalism, wrapped in an adventure-fantasy that skips between comedy and light horror with a socio-political slant. Joon-ho Bong directs the film with a verve and dynamism that keeps things racing along at a comfortable pace, and although the performances by Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal are broad (especially the latter’s), they are great fun and hugely watchable.
Mudbound – Dir. Dee Rees
Mudbound, directed by Dee Rees and based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, is a mud-caked American epic. The McAllans and the Jacksons, one a white family and one a black family, lives’ become entwined when the head of the Jackson family, Hap (Rob Morgan), breaks his leg and they are forced into a sharecropping deal. Both families have sons who are fighting in Europe during the Second World War and, who upon return, strike up a friendship that is frowned upon by the white locals.
There is a lyrical potency to Mudbound; the narrative is intricately woven together, seamlessly moving from character to character like an Olympic relay baton. There is not a bad turn in the house (although stand out performances fall to Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige) as we travel with the six core characters that make up this ensemble cast and are provided intimate insights into their experiences through their internal monologues.
Dee Rees has an eye for moments filled with quiet, powerful emotion, captured beautifully by cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, who evokes, in the dark browns of the delta mud, bathed in the deep oranges and purples of the fading light, a quality that recalls Terrence Malick.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore – Dir. Macon Blair
Taking the top spot is Macon Blair’s (from Blue Ruin) directorial debut, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, the low-key, indie step-cousin of Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film, Falling Down. It’s a comedy-crime revenge flick about an ordinary woman, Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) who, fed up with the daily grind and indifference of the world which surrounds her, is pushed past her limit when her home is broken into and her computer, medication and grandmother’s silverware is stolen. Ruth sets out to find the culprits and to help her crack the case teams up with Elijah Wood’s Tony, her strange, nerdy neighbour who has the same fascination to nun-chucks and physical build as a 14 year old boy.
There is a touch of the Coen brothers running through I Don’t Feel at Home Anymore, sharing its similarities closest with Fargo in its approach to violence, black comedy and situational screw-ups. But, it’s more than a comparison piece and perhaps somewhat reflective of the current mood in America, as a seemingly bland, suburban world gives way to a bleak one filled with rage, selfishness and individualism. All Ruth wants, apart from her stuff back, is, “for people to not be assholes” and a film built around that is guaranteed a gold star.