Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Reviews: 2018 Netflix Films

Netflix is determined to change the way we watch movies. According to Forbes, Netflix spent $13 billion on original content in 2018. And while most of that is for a seemingly endless string of new TV shows, Netflix seems poised to finally throw their weight toward major movies.

On the eve of Netflix dropping potential heavy-hitters like The Other Side of the Wind (which was released a few days), Outlaw King, Bird Box, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Roma, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at some recent notable releases.

I’m splitting these reviews into two categories: Netflix original films, and movies that were acquired by Netflix for exclusive distribution. The original films were developed, produced and released by Netflix, while the distributed films were seen by Netflix at a film festival, then purchased and distributed by Netflix.

Please note that this is far from a complete list of films that Netflix has aired in 2018. (Has anyone viewed them all?). These are simply ones I’ve seen recently, and felt like talking about a bit more.

Netflix Original Films
22 July
Dir. by Paul Greengrass
Paul Greengrass’s latest foray into depicting real life horror is the unflinching and brutal 22 July. The first third of the film recreates the horrific 2011 Norway attacks at the hands of alt-right terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik. On that titular day, Breivik bombed a government center in Oslo before driving to the island of Utøya and gunning down dozens of youth camp members. This sequence, while difficult to watch, is where Greengrass thrives as a filmmaker. He knows how to create insurmountable tension through editing, score, camerawork and performance. He depicts the massacre with a sort of cold, detached apathy, much like the killer himself. The result is truly terrifying

The film then cross cuts the investigation and trial of Breivik (played by Anders Danielsen Lie), with one of his victims slowly inching toward recovery. And despite a chilling performance from Lie (who was great in Oslo, 31 August), 22 July gets too bogged down in the details of pre-trial motions, and neglects the real mystery of the film, which is Breivik himself. Lie is so convincing in the film, I almost wish Greengrass would’ve explored the horror of the character a bit more. But all told, 22 July is a worthy Greengrass film, even if it runs too long. C+

Dir. by Gareth Evans
Apostle is about a lapsed Christian who gets word that his sister is being held for ransom by a cult, so he decides to infiltrate the cult and rescue her. This is a clichéd suspense/thriller trope we’ve seen dozens of times, and sadly, I’m not sure Evans has anything new to add to the genre. Michael Sheen is great as the cult leader, and some of the torture sequences are creatively vicious, but Apostle spends too much damn time getting to where we know it’s going to go. I appreciated some of the character twists in the third act, but there isn’t anything particularly interesting to gleam from this film. C+

Come Sunday
Dir. by Joshua Marston
Shortly into my Netflix original movie binge, I started to witness a trend: Netflix enjoys making movies about subjects we’ve seen countless times, but they rarely have anything new to bring to the table. Come Sunday is a careful, routine story about a minister enduring a crisis of faith. Or, more accurately, a minister whose views seemingly change overnight, and is excommunicated by his community as a result.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is riveting as the minister, but everything about the movie, both aesthetically and narratively, is too neat and undisturbed. Even the lighting of the film, which is slightly over-exposed to give the movie an intentionally angelic look, is annoying and distracting. For the religious-man-in-crisis genre, we’ve been issued a much more effective film this year, Paul Schrader’s emotionally ruthless First Reformed. Ultimately, Come Sunday hits all the beats you expect it to, and feels stale as a result. C-

Hold the Dark
Dir. by Jeremy Saulnier
Early reviews for Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark were lukewarm, but I found myself invested throughout its somewhat long run time. The movie is about a mysterious young woman (Riley Keough, who can do no wrong) who hires a wolf tracker (Jeffrey Wright, always great) to hunt the pack of wolves that abducted and killed her child in barren Alaska. The movie takes its time to get going, but once it introduces all the key players and sets things in motion, it proves to be a twisty, occasionally thrilling suspense film. Saulnier is so expert at staging exciting action set pieces, and an extended shoot out in this film ranks among the best-executed scenes of Saulnier’s career.

There are a few faults in the film. As mentioned, it runs a little too long, especially in its opening act. But moreover, the sequence that introduces Alexander Skarsgård’s character is so hyperbolic in its gruesomeness, that it’s off-putting. Far be it from me to suggest another way to prove that a character has strong morals, but maybe a little subtlety would’ve worked better here. Hold the Dark is a fine film made by a skilled director, but I wish, at times, Saulnier knew when to speed up, and when to slow down. B

The Land of Steady Habits
Dir. by Nicole Holofcener
The Land of Steady Habits is the first film Nicole Holofcener wrote and directed that is based on source material (Ted Thompson’s novel of the same name), and also her first film with a male lead. But those details matter little, as Ben Mendelsohn plays the lead part with a midlife crisis apathy that I so appreciated. Mendelsohn is a newly divorced guy trying to figure it out. He retired too early, and now spends his days attempting to furnish his condo and maintain a relationship with his troubled son. Like many of the characters in Holofcener’s films, Mendelsohn’s is lost, and makes countless mistakes while trying to fit in. But I can confidently say that if you’re a fan of Holofcener’s other films (I enjoy them all), then The Land of Steady Habits certainly won’t disappoint. B-

Private Life
Dir. by Tamara Jenkins
Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) have been trying to conceive a child for several years, to no avail. This years-long battle has consumed their lives, and many of the lives of the people around them.

The couple has done nearly everything to have a child, including connecting with a young pregnant woman who agrees to let Richard and Rachel adopt the baby once the child is born. This passage of the film, told in perfectly melancholic flashback, could be a movie itself. It’s the strongest scene in the film; one that helps us fully appreciate Richard and Rachel’s on-going struggle.

Private Life is one of the most honest movies of this kind I’ve seen in a while (this is certainly not the feel-good pregnancy film of the year). Giamatti and Hahn are reason enough to watch the film. Their performances are dedicated and extraordinary, I genuinely believed every word of their fight. B

Netflix Exclusive Distribution
The Kindergarten Teacher
Dir. by Sara Colangelo
I knew nothing about The Kindergarten Teacher before putting it on one evening. But shortly into the film, I sensed its calm and comfortable subject matter slowly dissolving into something more psychologically menacing. And thanks largely to a flawless performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (who also produced the film), The Kindergarten Teacher is one of the best, most subtly disturbing films I’ll see this year.

Gyllenhaal plays a kind kindergarten teacher in New York who takes a liking to one of her students, a young boy who spouts out meaningful short poems at random. Gyllenhaal’s interest in the boy quickly develops into borderline obsession, as she is determined to ensure the boy has the brightest and clearest future possible. Please don’t mistake, the movie doesn’t go too far, but rather, it presents a realistic portrayal of what happens when a certain type of person cares too much.

The Kindergarten Teacher is the kind of movie that helps validate what Netflix is doing to the movie industry, and how it’s doing it. The Kindergarten Teacher premiered at Sundance in January, and had it been picked up by a conventional distributor, it may have been released in a few theaters, but the film certainly would not have reached Netflix-level audiences. If Netflix is determined to change the way in which we see films, The Kindergarten Teacher is as fine a justification as they’ve presented yet. A-

The Ritual
Dir. by David Bruckner
The Ritual begins as a sort of all-male version of Descent (note: The Ritual isn’t nearly as good as Descent), in which we witness an unexpected bit of extreme violence, and then flash forward to see how the surviving members are living with it. The four men in The Ritual have decided to go on a rugged hiking trip in northern Sweden, all while their collective past trauma haunts them individually. One of the men gets hurt, and in order to save time, the group decides to leave the path and cut through the woods. Oops.

Part of the fun of movies like The Ritual is yelling at your TV about how dumb the characters are. “No, stay on the path!” “You’re going through the woods?!” “Do not go into that fucking house,” and so on. Director David Bruckner understands this, and instead of avoiding it, he has his characters constantly argue about which way to go. The result helps each viewer “match” with one of the characters. We decide who’s smart and who’s dumb, even if we cannot change what happens. I enjoyed The Ritual more than I thought I would; it’s a perfectly fine horror thriller to thrown on one cold winter night. B

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  1. I'm just going to say this. FUCK NETFLIX!!!!!

    I hate what they're trying to do to get people to see films in a new way. I don't have much of a problem seeing a film on my laptop but if there's no option to see it in the theaters with a bunch of people. Then what's the fucking point?

    I remember Xavier Dolan having issues with Netflix over how they treated Mommy by changing its aspect ratio of 1:1 to a full widescreen format which missed the point of what he was doing.

    I'm not against the films that are being made from Netflix as I'm sure people like Noah Baumbach, the Coen Brothers, Bong Joon-Ho, and others are given more freedom and not deal with some of the bullshit with distributors and film executives as they're given a chance to be seen by a wider audience. I just have a problem with the fact that they might not be seen on the big screen.

    Call me a cynic or an old fart but I refuse to give into the idea of watching a film that could've been shot on 70mm to be seen on a fucking phone or a big TV which might not be enough. I want the big screen experience and to see it with an audience no matter how big or how small it is.

    I'm also worried about the idea of a physical release for these films and what if they're not available once those films aren't on Netflix anymore.

    I do want to see Roma on the big screen and hopefully the same for The Irishman though I'm bummed that it might not be shown on a wide release. Netflix can suck my balls.

    R.I.P. Filmstruck. The only streaming service that I really considered using if I had money and proper equipment to watch on the big TV.

  2. Netflix is definitely making big moves. They're not perfect, and Steven has some valid concerns. However, I'm mostly okay with what they're doing because, truthfully, the vast majority of the movies under the Netflix/Netflix original banner are things would never play in theaters anywhere near me.

    In my house, I'm pretty much last in line to watch Netflix despite paying for it, lol. My daughters often have it tied up with one series or another. Then, my wife and son do the same. I get in after that. This was just my long-winded way of saying that I've only seen one of these movies - The Kindergarten Teacher. I agree it's a magnificent and unsettling piece of film.

  3. Of these I've seen, 22 July, Apostle, and The Kindergarten Teacher. I threw Private Life in my queue after reading this, and I already had a few others on my list.

    I agree with you on the Kindergarten Teacher, and I liked Apostle a bit more than you I think. I'm with you on 22 July. I'm not sure if Greengrass was right for that movie, and it irrationally bothered me that he made everyone speak English.

    I know Hold The Dark got meh reviews but I still want to see that one too. Same with The Ritual.

  4. Wait, where is the immediate classic and masterpiece that is Bright? And the greatest thing ever - Cloverfield Paradox? :D

    Seriously though, ysh. Netflix needs to step up their game. They only distributed Annihilation here so I don't give them credit. Apostle was good but not great and I'm guessing Pine's penis is the most noteworthy thing about Outlaw King

  5. I need to add Kindergarten Teacher to my queue. I started watching Come Sunday but opted to listen to the NPR episode first and they did such a great job that even my love for Jason Segal (especially in a more dramatic piece) couldn't get me past the first ten minutes. I should give it another chance.
    It didn't help that I started the first ten minutes, listen to the episode, and then attempted the movie again. Now that it has been a month, that distance should help.
    I'm just at this odd place where if a film is based on a true event, I sort of want to just watch a documentary about the true event instead of an adaption of it. So I definitely want to look into 22 July as I can't believe I hadn't even heard of those events before.