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.

    1. I must say that, to one degree or another, I agree with all of this. I like the idea of a movie studio with seemingly bottomless cash letting auteurs make the films they want to make, however they want to make them, but I'm not a fan of the distribution model, which seems inevitable.

      I'm of the mindset that every movie plays better in a theater. But, taking time and money into account, I'm not sure I would've seen every movie in this post in the theater. Actually, I know I wouldn't have. That said, certain movies (like Roma, Buster Scruggs, The Irishman) deserve a wide theatrical release. The idea of playing Roma on one screen in New York and one screen in LA for two weeks just to qualify for awards simply sucks. People need to be seeing this stuff in the theater!

      And yeah, what streaming services do to aspect ratios is fucking insane. I cannot imagine shooting a movie in 4:3 or 2:35.1, and having a streaming service change it to 16:9 just so it fills the frame of a TV. That is criminal.

    2. I consider Netflix and other streaming services like it more of a consequence rather than the cause of the fall of the movie theater. The truth is that studios and theater companies like AMC had already started to push people away from the theater long before Netflix came into the picture. First, they made it unaffordable for families to enjoy a film at the theater on a regular basis. Second, the films on offer perpetuated sexism, racism and exclusion, reusing the same types of stories from the same group of people ad nauseam. The mainstream film then turned to franchises and bombastic spectacles and, soon, these were the only types of films that they would shower with money. Third, while cinemas around the world have been slow to invest in infrastructure and offer a better experience, the world of home entertainment hasn't stopped improving, making leaps in quality. In the short space of 15-20 years we went from DVDs and 40-inch televisions, to Blu-Ray, and then 4k with giant smart televisions with streaming services that almost rival the big screen. Lastly, we can't fault Netflix for trying to make money. The industry exists and persists because people still make money from it. You shouldn't expect a company like Netflix to fund projects by artists with blank checks, as if they were art patrons that expect no return. They are not and will not be. Films and TV shows are expensive to make, and the companies that fund them have to follow a model where the making of these continues to be financially possible in the long run.
      Personally, I think the current state of affairs could be A LOT worse. We could be in the situation we were in 10 years ago, where studios were shutting down their smaller outfits responsible for bringing us more modest films; leaving consumers without any other options. At least Netflix and other outfits like HBO have provided artists with opportunities that they can no longer find in the traditional studios, and we've enjoyed this shift in the industry, even if it's far from ideal.

      Of the films you reviewed, I've only seen Hold the Dark, which I enjoyed, though I prefer Jeremy Saulnier's previous work, especially in Blue Ruin. I do agree with you about the shootout scene in Hold the Dark, easily one of the best of the year.
      I am planning to watch The Kindergarten Teacher (very intriguing premise, though unfortunate title), Roma (hopefully in theaters) and Private Life (I will watch anything with Paul Giamatti in it) before the end of the year.
      Good work!

    3. Thank so much! And thanks for this comment, I agree with a lot of what you said. I also think Blue Ruin remains Saulnier's best work. He really proved how an indie filmmaker can stretch a dollar with that film.

  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.

    1. Well if you've only seen one, I'm certainly glad it was that one! I loved your story of who gets a hold of Netflix first in your house - that stuff is so true!

  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.

    1. Good stuff! I'm glad you liked The Kindergarten Teacher, that one came out of nowhere for me. I had fun with The Ritual, and thought Hold the Dark was better than expected. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on both!

  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

    1. How could I forget Bright?! Haha, no interest in that one at all. And thank god I posted this before watching The Other Side of the Wind and Outlaw King, because I don't have good things to say about either of them. Oh well!

  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.

    1. I had trouble getting through all of Come Sunday. It hit all the beats I expected it to, and offered no real new insight into movies of that kind.

      And I'm absolutely with you about the documentary thing. I honestly hadn't heard of the events in 22 July either (which is kind of scary, actually), but after watching Greengrass's film, I found myself searching out a good documentary about that event, just to understand what went on better.

    2. Super scary, I had to do a deep dive into 22 July as I felt so irresponsible by not knowing about such a tragic event.
      When that Everest film came out in 2015, was the beginning of my wanting to watch a documentary or at least be familiar with the true events. For one thing, that title doesn't tell me which of the several thousand possible stories of the fame mountain the film could be possibly telling. Another thing, and you've written about this, they can only tell so much of the story within a time limit or they have to change something dramatically for pacing or for a specific interest.

    3. Right, exactly. Now I really want to see a well-made doc about 22 July.

  6. Based on your review here, I'm curious to check out The Land of Steady Habits as I've enjoyed Holofcener's films over the years. Thanks for the heads-up!

    1. Sure thing! I did enjoy it, but I can't say it is one of her best. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts though.

  7. Out of these i have only watched 22 July, The Land of Steady Habits and The Ritual. They were all fine, but i think the only one that's gonna stick with me over time is 22 July, but that has more to do with me being Norwegian and still remembering that day so well than the movie itself. I knew and went to school with some of the people that were on the island that day. I never really wanted anyone to make a movie about that event mostly because i feel like that is exactly what Breivik wanted. He loved the attention he was getting. But since i knew it inevitable i guess Paul Greengrass was a good choice for the director. He handled it well, even if it did go on for way too long. The performances were also all fine. Anders Danielsen Lie, who has been one of my favorite Norwegian actors in the past few years, did a good job showing Breivik as the emotionless psychopath he was. I also like that the movie didn't focus too much on the attack itself and more on the aftermath. It could have gotten way too exploitative very fast if they had just keep showing him killing all the teenagers over and over again. So while i think the movie was unnecessary, especially so soon after the events, it was still better than i expected. It's not a movie i will ever watch again though.

    As for the other movies on this list, i really need to check out Hold the Dark, Private Life and The Kindergarten Teacher. It's nice to finally get some good Netflix recommendations. There are way too many Netflix original movies getting pumped out ever week now that are bad to just okay. More often than not i have come across a movie i thought looked interesting only to turn it off half way through. I guess there is a reason why most of these are dumped on Netflix instead of getting a proper theatrical release.

    I remember i was so excited for the new Duncan Jones movie, Mute. I loved both Moon and Source Code (i skipped Warcraft), so of course Mute was gonna be another great movie from him. Oh boy was i wrong. It was easily one of the worst movies i have seen all year. It felt like the kind of movie a film student obsessed with Blade Runner for all the wrong reasons would make. Direct to Netflix is the new Direct to Video.

    1. You make many good points about 22 July. And I really appreciate you sharing your personal insight to that story. I'm so sorry you knew people who were there that day. That's absolutely terrifying. There's a very fine line to toe with movies like this. I do think it's important to tell certain stories, but I also agree that people like Breivik could enjoy the added notoriety to their horrible act. You also offered the best explanation I've heard yet as to why it was good that Greengrass focused more on the aftermath as opposed to the attack. He was careful to not exploit the event, and I do appreciate that.

      And oh man, I've been avoiding Mute for that very reason. Yikes!