This time last year, Netflix estimated that it would release 90 original movies in 2019. At the time, the number seemed outrageous: That’s more than four times the number Warner Bros. made in the same 12-month period — and more than any human would ever care to watch. Guess what: Turns out that 90 was a conservative estimate, as Netflix unloaded nearly that many original features and series (one estimate pegged the number at 73) last month alone.
Overwhelmed? Netflix employees refer to all those movies as “content,” but to quote “The Irishman” director Martin Scorsese, “But that’s not cinema.” Scorsese was dismissing Marvel movies when he said that — albeit with his face pressed to the window of his shiny new glass house. Cinema, it would seem, isn’t something one sees in the cinema anymore, and no one’s doing more to expand that experience than Netflix, including buying up a few classic movie palaces (such as Hollywood’s Egyptian and New York’s Paris Theater) to four-wall their latest offerings.
When Netflix believes in one of its original features, subscribers know about it: From Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” to Michael Bay’s “6 Underground” (the December juggernaut getting the “Bird Box” push this year), those movies get prominent exposure on the service, auto-playing if you don’t click on something else fast enough. But what about all the lower-profile treasures hidden on the service?
In compiling this list, I watched far more than the doctor’s recommended allowance of Netflix originals. Toward the end (somewhere between the lame chills of “Polar” and the campy thrills of “The Perfection”), I reached out to the company’s PR department for a complete list — just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything — and learned that even Netflix staff can’t keep track of them all. They’re practically drowning in drek. But lest this devolve into the winter of my dissing content, let’s turn our focus to quality and celebrate the Netflix originals that rose above in 2019.
1. “I Lost My Body”
These days, Netflix’s strategy appears to be outspending the competition to enable ambitious auteur’s dream projects, like “Roma” and “The Irishman,” but the bigger budgets don’t necessarily make for better movies. The most original, life-affirming addition to the service in 2019 was a relatively modest animated movie picked up at the Cannes film festival, where Jérémy Clapin’s outside-the-box debut won the top prize in Critics’ Week. The one-of-a-kind mystery unfolds from the point of view (so to speak) of a disembodied hand, which undertakes an epic quest across Paris to find the body to which it once belonged.
2. “The Two Popes”
Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins both deserve Oscar nominations as the impressive pair of papal protagonists who make Fernando Meirelles’ crackling two-hander the season’s most unexpected delight. Hopkins plays Pope Benedict, the staunchly conservative church leader who shocked the world by abdicating the position and selecting Pope Francis (Pryce) to be his successor. It couldn’t have been an easy decision, which allows screenwriter Anthony McCarten to speculate how exactly the hand-off took place. Told with warmth and wit, this unlikely buddy movie proves infinitely more entertaining than a look into the fate of the Catholic faith has any right to be.
A tender, thought-provoking coming-of-gender story, this stunning Belgian drama puts audiences in the shoes — or rather, the ballet slippers — of a teenager in transition. Fifteen-year-old Lara wants nothing more than to be a successful ballerina, but she’s frustrated to have been born in the wrong body. “Girl” won nearly as many awards as “Roma” on the festival circuit last year — including quite a few for newcomer Victor Polster’s courageous lead performance — but encountered resistance in the U.S., where trans advocates challenged some of its artistic choices. Though imperfect, the film fosters empathy and, thanks to Netflix, can be seen by those in places LGBTQ stories seldom reach.
4. “Marriage Story”
Noah Baumbach made a big stink when Netflix bought “The Meyerowitz Stories,” only to become a convert when it went on to become the most widely seen movie of his career. Reteaming with the streamer enabled Baumbach to tell his most intimate story yet, loosely based on the director’s divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play the creative couple whose decision to involve lawyers makes their differences all the more irreconcilable. The generic-sounding title may have fooled some into thinking it’s a romance, when in fact, “Scenes from a Marriage” would make a better date movie.
5. “American Factory”
Documentary co-directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were Oscar nominated for chronicling the final days of an American institution with “The Last Truck.” Now, they return to the site of the former General Motors assembly line to observe a unique attempt to revitalize the community, as Chinese windshield manufacturer Fuyao Glass takes control of the plant, creating jobs for hundreds of American workers, who work alongside trained employees from overseas. Uncertain how the story would turn out, the filmmakers roll cameras amid culture clashes, union whispers, and expanding automation, coming away with a surprising portrait of the fast-changing 21st-century workplace.
6. “Edge of Democracy”
As moves toward impeachment consume the American government, director Petra Costa’s chilling look at the successful coup to oust Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff on trumped-up corruption charges offers valuable perspective on what’s happening in this country. Mixing personal insights with penetrating investigative techniques, Costa comes away with an alarming cautionary tale about the way the institution of democracy can be perverted to serve the powerful. Launched on opening night of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, this daring project also represents how Netflix now rivals HBO (long the leader in producing provocative documentaries such as “Leaving Neverland”) on the nonfiction front.
7. “The Irishman”
If you can get past the unconvincing anti-aging effects and the ruthlessly long running time, Martin Scorsese’s miniseries-scale Mob drama introduces an element of conscience missing from previous gangster epics “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, who claimed to have offed Jimmy Hoffa (an Al Pacino-fied version of the not-at-all Al Pacino-like organized labor leader) and countless others. The movie takes Sheeran at his word (should it?), focusing on the irony that a self-proclaimed killer should die of old age when so many of his peers were violently whacked. The last 45 minutes is arguably Scorsese’s best work.
8. “Dolemite Is My Name”
They say it takes as much effort to make a bad movie as a great one. In the tradition of Melvin Van Peebles’ “Baadasssss!” (a half-documentary homage to his father Mario’s revolutionary “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”) and 2017’s “The Disaster Artist,” this behind-the-scenes satire pokes affectionate fun at R&B has-been Rudy Ray Moore’s uphill attempt to reinvent himself with 1975 blaxploitation classic “Dolemite.” In a much-needed comeback of his own, Eddie Murphy leverages his comedic instincts to celebrate an unlikely hero who couldn’t get his foot in the door of Hollywood, so decided to kick it down.
The French film industry may have succeeded in barring Netflix movies from competing at the Cannes Film Festival, but they can’t stop the streaming giant from snapping up the best films that premiere there. Winner of the grand jury prize (second place to the Palme d’Or-gilded “Parasite”), Mati Diop’s directorial debut represents a poetic new voice in international cinema — and thanks to Netflix, it can be seen more widely than just big-city arthouses. A fresh take on the refugee crisis, the Dakar-set romance imagines a community haunted by the ghosts of men lost at sea seeking opportunity in Europe.
10. “Always Be My Maybe”
The Keanu Reeves cameo alone makes this ridiculously funny romantic comedy the most satisfying of Netflix’s studio-caliber charmers — and the company also deserves props for hiring far more women and people of color to direct than any of the majors. Co-writers Ali Wong and Randall Park play lifelong Bay Area buddies who could never figure out how to take their friendship to the next level. You can guess where their years-later reunion is headed, although the movie keeps blindsiding us, as in the detail of casting Keanu as a hilarious douchebag version of himself. Infinitely better than “Murder Mystery” or “Sextuplets.”