Film at Your Fingertips
Netflix is a wonderful thing. How great is it that we can search and stream our favorite films without ever leaving the couch? Along with reliving our childhood memories and watching our favorite comfort movies, Netflix also serves up a buffet of new flavors. From art-house crime thrillers to foreign-language romantic comedies to obscure documentaries, there’s never a shortage of new material just waiting to be discovered. Countless titles are added with enough regular frequency to keep you fascinated for months. Some of them familiar classics, others you’ve never heard of. But that is, I submit, the magic of video on demand services. You never know what movie you’ll come across at 12:34am that will suddenly become your new obsession and impact you in such a way that you feel the need to shout its praises to all of your friends who already think you spend too much time in front of the TV.
This post is dedicated to five such films – titles that I originally first watched on Netflix and feel are overlooked and severely under-watched for whatever reason. Perhaps this is all too presumptuous on my part and I could be mistaken in referring to these films as “hidden gems,” but to be honest I don’t care. I’m happy to bring more attention to these films and would rather see them fairly judged than passed over.
1. Dead Man (1995) – dir. Jim Jarmusch
Ever since his breakout out at the 1984 Cannes Festival with Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch has always possessed the ability to tell stories on screen uniquely about Americana. He has a deft talent for capturing the sensibilities and aesthetic of the country as a whole through the use of iconic imagery, music, and history to examine our relationship as viewers to America’s cultural heritage. This is none more evidenced than by Dead Man, his most elegant realization of the medium. Johnny Depp (whose range is endless) plays William Blake, a lowly accountant from Ohio who travels to the town of Machine in search of work. Unable to get off the ground financially, Blake gets into trouble with some local townsfolk and ends up on the run. He eventually stumbles into the world of an American Indian called “Nobody” who guides him across the lawless West to reach the Pacific Ocean. To give away any more plot description would be doing a huge disservice to this off-beat treat. At times goofy, serious, and surreal, Dead Man is unconcerned with temporal logic and instead opts for a connection with the spiritual. Special mention must go to Neil Young’s anachronistic soundtrack, which he recorded live as he watched the final cut of the film in his recording studio.
2. Election (1999) – dir. Alexander Payne
We all know the type. The overachieving, suck-up, cutthroat, by any means necessary student. Tracy Flick is the walking embodiment of everything we detest in those people. Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy with a such a verve that while it’s easy to root for her demise, you have to admire her tenacity in the same breath. She is almost a tragic figure, isolated in her world of academic advancement and need for intellectual validation. But Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) has other plans. Quietly enraged by Tracy’s seemingly unopposed path to student council presidency (and even more by her involvement in a student-teacher affair that got his teaching colleague fired from the school), Mr. McAllister hatches a plan to groom his own candidate to topple Tracy. He chooses none other than the star quarterback of the football team and very popular Paul Metzler. It’s from this launching point that Election soars above typical high school movies. By keeping the tone light and comedy dark, and utilizing a Casino-esque style of voice over narration that jumps between principal characters, Election is easily one of the most absurd and hysterical comedies available.
3. In the Loop (2009) – dir. Armando Iannucci
It’s always refreshing when a filmmaker can turn on the microscope and magnify the nonsensical and wholly laughable nature behind the decision-making of a nation’s political leaders. Building off of his hit BBC Series The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci delivers his best gut-busting satire with In the Loop. Armed with a razor sharp screenplay and the genuinely acid-tongued Peter Capaldi (of Doctor Who fame), Iannucci cleverly exposes the folly of both the UK and US leadership in regards to a possible military intervention in the Middle East. This film truly is a comedy of political errors. See it to believe it.
4. Blue Ruin (2013) – dir. Jeremy Saulnier
This is a film that creeps up on you. From the first 15 minutes you’re not quite sure what to make of the scraggly homeless man on screen or what he’s after. But slowly, and very beautifully, layers are revealed and this violent tale of family vengeance starts to take shape. Like a Southern-Gothic retelling of the Hatfield–McCoy feud, Blue Ruin reminds us that every action has deadly ripple effects on all parties involved. It also helps that this is a gorgeous film. Jeremy Saulnier began his career as a cinematographer and his skills are on full display behind the camera. Excellent framing and smart use of natural light serve as testimony to this being a mastery of minimalist composition.
Do yourself a favor and seek out this movie.
5. White God (2014) – dir. Kornél Mundruczó
After first viewing, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of White God. It blends several genres together to tell a strange tale of abandonment, love, and acceptance within a group. And it does this by framing the story behind two characters: 13-year-old Lili and her mixed-breed mutt Hagen. It only gets stranger from here. After Lili’s father refuses to keep Hagen in the house, he leaves him on the streets of Budapest to fight (literally) for survival. Evading animal control and finding food and shelter are just some of Hagen’s daily struggles. But it’s in the film’s final 30 minutes that separate it from your typical dog-lost-from-home story. Without giving too much away, Hagen finds the courage to fight back and lead an uprising with his canine compatriots against his human oppressors. Think Planet of the Apes meets Air Bud. It’s also a small miracle that they shot this movie the way they did. I can barely get my human friends to keep a straight face on camera; I can only imagine how hard it is to keep a dog in frame during a film shoot…let alone get 250 of them to follow stage directions. Bravo to these filmmakers.