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It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than two years since Netflix got in the original film game. Since the autumn of 2015, they’ve gone from the cautious release of Beasts of No Nation to a schedule that’s practically film-a-week.
At first, pretty much every one of them should have been avoided like the plague: trust me, you don’t need to see The Do-Over. I did it for you. It’s not worth it.
But the second half of 2016 heralded the release of a number of indie gems, and just this year they’ve moved on from a solely distribution focused model, and begun releasing their own productions.
The Discovery wasn’t a great start, but the appearance of Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories at Cannes – however controversial – marked a step up in esteem and an interest in auteurship on Netflix’s part.
There’s much to come: Duncan Jones’ Moon sequel-ish Mute, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Noah Baumbach’s previously mentioned The Meyorowitz Stories, Dee Rees’ hotly anticipated Sundance title Mudbound and many more. We’re on the precipice of a shift in how their original films are perceived (especially with Mudbound‘s upcoming Oscar campaign), so at this early milestone it’s interesting to look back at their best features so far – all excellent films, many small and in danger of being buried even more than they already have been. In honour of today’s release of The Incredible Jessica James, here are ten films that demand to be added to the top of your Netflix queue.
From a responsible point of view: if you have to watch just one Netflix original film, make it 13th. Ava DuVernay’s rousing and sharp documentary centres on racial discrimination in America’s prison system. It’s essentially a talking heads doc, but within those limits it works out a structure that has astounding clarity. DuVernay makes her argument with urgency, reason and undeniable conviction. It’s impossible to watch 13th without feeling angry and motivated.
9. Casting JonBenet
Kitty Green’s experimental documentary asks the question: should a film like Casting JonBenet even exist? It’s a bold move, to question your own existence. I’m still not sure whether the legitimacy of that query is a reason to like or dislike the film. Green deconstructs the murder of six year old beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsay by interviewing actors to play the suspects in a fake movie about the case. Right or wrong, it’s an experience to be had – if only so you can make up your own mind.
8. The Incredible Jessica James
There’s one thing you need to know about The Incredible Jessica James: Jessica Williams if effervescent. The film’s opening credits play over the image of her running around her New York apartment, earphones in, dancing at full energy capacity. She, and the film, are a ball of energy, impossible to dislike. The Incredible Jessica James doesn’t aim too high, but it squarely hits its mark, lightly skating on the edge of something more profound. More than anything, it’s immensely enjoyable.
7. Sand Storm
Elite Zexer’s directorial debut Sand Storm beat more high profile candidate’s to Sundance’s top prize for world cinema in 2016. It took nearly a year for Netflix to release the film, and it did so with an incremental amount of fanfare. Set amongst a community of Bedouin women in Israel, Layla (compelling newcomer Lamis Ammar) fights against patriarchal values that stop her from marrying for love. Her clashes with mother Jalila are the film’s conflict and heart. Sand Storm is a sensitive and deeply considered take on an oft ignored community, and an oft ignored perspective within that community.
6. To the Bone
Just like Casting JonBenet, the very existence of To the Bone remains in question. Many sufferers or ex-sufferers of eating disorders have argued that it’s impossible to depict an illness such as anorexia in a way that isn’t a glorification – but at the same time, people in a similar situation have claimed that it was therapeutic to watch a film that truthfully depicts anorexia (made by a writer/director and actress who have gone through a similar experience). As a film, it’s immensely moving, and clearly authentic. Lily Collins is the lead, entering into in-patient care and meeting a cast of characters who kick start a story that’s surprising in its carefully considered nuance.
It takes a tremendous amount of writing skill to capture the small details and foibles of everyday conversation. In Barry, Vikram Gandhi’s sharply intelligent and often hilarious account of Barack Obama’s college years, almost every conversation is laced with casual racial tensions, teetering on the tipping point of paranoia. Barry isn’t sure how he fits into the world yet, and so how he is perceived by others plays a large part in adding to the growing sense of anxiety in the film. He’s just a young man, treated with none of the historical reverence of your usual biopic. It’s all sealed off by a truly incredible performance from Devon Terrell, who’ll be a huge star any minute now if there’s any justice in the world.
4. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Macon Blair is known as Jeremy Saulnier’s OG leading man, and while Blair’s directorial debut I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore shows hints of Saulnier’s influence, it has a whole lot more heart. It’s also funny – a word that never comes to mind when you think of Blue Ruin or Green Room. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore won the Sundance Grand Jury prize earlier this year, and it’s not hard to see why people were so won over by this entertaining, painfully relatable, intricately plotted suburban crime saga – starring Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood as the ultimate odd couple.
For her directorial debut Divines, the winner of the Cannes Camera d’Or, director Houda Benyamina cast her younger sister Oulaya Amamra in the lead role. It paid off tenfold. Amamra isn’t the only reason Divines is amazing, but without the unstoppable, fiery power of her performance it wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Still, Benyamina is an equally fierce talent to watch. She directs with passion and expansive imagination. Set in the French banlieue, the grim poverty of the characters’ lives are contrasted against sequences of disarming beauty. You may not have heard of Divines, but once you’ve seen it you won’t shut up about it.
At Sundance 2016, nobody seemed to care about Tallulah. It came and went and was forgotten, which is why it was such a surprise to press play on Netflix a few months later and be greeted by a film worthy of so much more hype than it was afforded. Tallulah‘s narrative slots together satisfyingly, but its real pull is its portrayal of female friendship – in this case between a young homeless woman (Ellen Page) and her ex-boyfriend’s mother (Allison Janney). Page impulsively steals a baby from its neglectful mother, then stays in Janney’s home under the pretence that the child is her son’s. The slow melting of tension between the two of them is a wonder to behold. Where less thoughtful films would slip into convention, Tallulah asks the question: what if people were just nice to each other?
By far Netflix’s largest scale film production is also its best – because there’s nobody that can orchestrate high-tech, big-budget madness like Bong Joon-ho. Okja is a wild ride full of dangerously diverging tones, insane characters and soulful emotion. While beloved actors such as Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal embody colourful characterisations of corporate greed, your heart remains with pre-teen Mija and her best friend Okja, a super-pig. The two grew up in the mountains together, and when Okja is carted off to America, Mija won’t rest until they are re-united. The whirpool of laughter and exhilarating chases only coalesces because you believe body and soul in this deep connection between human and animal – and you want more than anything for it all to work out in the end.