Out of all of the amazing things that the digital revolution has brought us, one of the most incredible has to be streaming video content. In forty years, we’ve gone from having to track down a 35mm screening if we want to see a movie again to having an absurd bounty of film and television content available at the push of a button. Gripe all you want about the lack of representation for certain sectors on most streaming services – older films, foreign films – but we still enjoy an unprecedented level of access and convenience, and providers like Netflix still offer plenty in the way of hidden gems and new discoveries. Following are five titles on Netflix right now that you may have overlooked, all of them notable favorites of mine. If you get tired of watching Parks and Rec or Doctor Who over and over again, why not give one of these a try?
The Conversation (1974, US, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola): Between 1970 and 1979, Francis Ford Coppola went on one of the greatest runs of sustained creative excellence in cinema history. After first co-writing the Oscar-winning screenplay for Patton, Coppola then directed four of the best American films ever made. Three of these – The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now – remain household names forty years later. The last, The Conversation, seems strangely overlooked today – strangely not least because it may be the most accomplished and disciplined of any of them. While Coppola’s other output during this period is epic and operatic in scope and execution, The Conversation tells a quieter story in a more unsettling manner. Anchored by Gene Hackman in a career-best performance, and guided by Coppola’s unfailing instinct for tone and shot composition, this haunting meditation on paranoia, surveillance, and self-deception has perhaps even more relevance to a contemporary audience coming to grips with living inside a digital panopticon. The film also features a key supporting turn from John Cazale, the legendary character actor who passed away at 42 after appearing in only five features, all of which were nominated for Best Picture and three of which won. The Conversation is a truly indispensable entry in the film canon, and if you only have time to watch one thing on this list, make it this one.
(Note: The above is an unofficial, fan-made trailer.)
Black Mirror (2011 – current, UK, created by Charlie Brooker): Brooker has had a varied career as journalist, broadcaster, and media pundit, but Black Mirror will almost certainly be his most lasting contribution to popular culture. A science-fiction anthology in the tradition of The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror has aired only two seasons of three hourlong episodes each since premiering in 2011; a 90-minute Christmas special airing later this month will feature Jon Hamm (Mad Men) in multiple shorter segments. Each episode of the series presents a different take on the intersection of digital technology and human life, blending satire and horror into a queasy, provocative examination of our relation with the strange new world we have created within the cold, dark slabs of glass and plastic that surround us at all times. Very little content has the ability to disturb me anymore, but each of the six episodes of Black Mirror have given me moments of pause – do I really want to keep watching? I consider this a feature, not a bug; science fiction should always aspire to ask the difficult questions about where we are as a species and where we might be heading. Black Mirror cuts to the quick by hypothesizing not on a hundred years down the line, but next year, next month, maybe even tomorrow. There’s no insulation, no breathing room, and no compromise. Just us, and the machine.
Holy Motors (2012, France/Germany, written and directed by Leos Carax): It’s hard to know what to say about Holy Motors, one of the most singular viewing experiences I’ve ever had. Its ostensible protagonist, the mysterious Mr. Oscar – portrayed fearlessly and ferociously by Carax’s frequent collaborator Denis Lavant – moves between seemingly unconnected vignettes, taking on different guises and personas as his day unfolds. Oscar’s function within these events seems to be that of facilitator, provocateur, and observer all at once, though what agency or authority directs him remains obscure. Certain framing elements and oblique dialogue references imply that these scenes may be commentaries on the evolution and devolution of cinema, but ultimately, the film’s intentions, if any, are immaterial. Within each vignette, Carax, Lavant, and their collaborators create such specific, captivating worlds and stories that the ultimate “point” of the film may just be to remind viewers of the power of drama and movement to transport us outside of ourselves and our mundane concerns. Every choice seems designed to maximize interpretability – not to frustrate, but to challenge, demanding much more investment from its audience than more commercial pieces ever bother to. Two years after seeing it, there are moments and images from this film that I still think about on a frequent basis, long after most of that fall’s releases have faded away.
Nightbreed (1990, US, written and directed by Clive Barker): The most recent addition to this list from my perspective, as I just watched it myself for the first time a few nights ago. Barker is an English fantasist best known in the film world for writing the source material of the Hellraiser franchise. I generally find his fiction engaging if sometimes overwrought, and he brings a similar feeling to his screen work that failed to win me over in his other directorial efforts, the first Hellraiser film and 1995’s Lord of Illusions. Between these two films, he made Nightbreed, also based on one of his novels, famously butchered by its distributor, and only this year restored to something approaching Barker’s original vision. This approved director’s cut is the version now available on Netflix. While its story of a troubled young man joining an underground society of monsters does not distinguish itself in concept, its execution is a marvel of production design and atmosphere. The feverish visuals of the Nightbreed and their underground home of Midian, created through elaborate makeup, prosthetics, and practical effects, are a tribute to the designers and performers involved, carrying the film through its rougher patches through sheer inventiveness and commitment. Barker is not a believer in restraint, and Nightbreed revels in its sensuous, organic aesthetic – this is categorically a film of the body, not the mind. When discussing it with my wife after watching it, I described it as an R-rated, adult horror counterpart to Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, another film centering on a human’s journey into a fantasy realm of barely sublimated carnality. Also notable for a rare acting turn from legendary cult director David Cronenberg (The Fly, A History of Violence), and for featuring one of Danny Elfman’s earliest film scores.
Upstream Color (2013, US, written and directed by Shane Carruth): An engineer by training, Carruth made his debut in 2004 with Primer, one of the great time travel films, a narrative of implication and subversion that took the Grand Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. His idiosyncratic approach – he has to date served as producer, writer, director, editor, cinematographer, composer, and lead actor for both of his features – meant that his followup took almost a full decade, but it was well worth the wait. A plot summary, aside from being almost impossible, would be well beside the point. I could explain that the film revolves around symbiosis, hypnosis, psychotropic drugs, and a couple realizing that they have been experimented on by parties unknown, but conventional storytelling does not interest Carruth, and those elements are present only to provide a loose structural underpinning for something far more fluid and strange. He transforms science fiction cinema into a tool of impressionism, a means of communicating the human emotional experience through visual symbolism. His sense of rhythm, tone, and (yes) color is startling, and large stretches of the film become experiments in collage and montage that stunned me with their ability to absorb my entire interest; as someone almost pathologically obsessed with traditional narrative, it’s a rare achievement for something so minimalist to captivate me in that way. As an actor, Carruth is an adequate screen presence, but his co-star Amy Seimetz elevates the proceedings to another level. Her haunted, driven performance provides a much needed anchoring presence to the esoteric cavalcade of imagery, and frankly the film is worth watching for her alone.
I hope these prove to be of interest to some of you out there, and I’d love to read about any finds you’ve uncovered hidden in the depths of Netflix – leave a comment with your recommendations!