How much difference a year makes! Early last December, around the time critics’ groups do their annual awards voting, if you’d asked me to make a list of the 10 best Netflix original films of 2017, I could’ve named two contenders — Sundance winner “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” and Noah Baumbach pickup “The Meyerowitz Stories” — and that would’ve been the end of it.
I remember having conversations — ranting sessions, really — about how the streaming service was “ruining movies,” grumpy that a company that had once helped make DVDs of obscure classics, foreign, and independent films available by mail had dropped those titles in favor of second-rate “originals” as its business model changed.
As far as I could tell, two things were happening: Netflix was snapping up movies that no one else wanted (such as Noomi Rapace starrer “What Happened to Monday”) and offering extravagant sums to seduce A-list directors and stars to make pseudo-studio movies for the service (resulting in that outrageous multi-picture deal with Adam Sandler and misfires from previously reliable auteurs). Eschewing the way things are traditionally done in Hollywood in favor of a strategy more in line with Silicon Valley, the company lured talent with the promise of creative freedom, and filmmakers took it, making sprawling, self-indulgent movies that ran 20% too long and wound up feeling like director’s cuts of themselves (I’m looking at you, “Okja”), demonstrating that sometimes the input or discipline of an experienced development executive can be a good thing.
And then a funny thing happened: “Bright.” OK, I know mine was practically the only non-rotten review it got, but “Bright” was the movie that changed my outlook on Netflix. It cost a fortune — reportedly $90 million, because stars had to be paid up front, since there was no box office for them to split down the road — and was dismissed by many as an “Alien Nation” rehash, but it caused an undeniable phenomenon: Here was a (smart) star-driven, effects-heavy blockbuster that audiences could watch at home. And they did, far outstripping the number of viewers that ever would have gone to see such a film in theaters.
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Back then, much of Netflix’s dealings were shrouded in secrecy (still are) and protected from meaningful analysis because the company only selectively shares its numbers. For example, just this week, what does it mean that 45,037,125 Netflix accounts watched “Bird Box” in its first seven days? How many eyeballs does that translate to? (Some share passwords or watch with friends, while others no doubt auto-play to an empty room.) How many minutes constitute “watching”? And why can’t we get those figures on other films, like “Roma”?
Still, “Bright” was the beginning of something, and “Bird Box” marks its continuation, proving how the right kind of Netflix release can become a genuine event — in a way that few theatrical releases or televised broadcasts still manage to achieve. More important, something qualitative has changed with Netflix “content” — that abhorrent catch-all word used to describe movies, series, and whatever other sausage it pipes out to subscribers’ devices.
Yes, it’s still picking up castaways from other companies (like “The Cloverfield Paradox,” a rejected and rebranded Paramount discard, or Warner Bros.’ unwanted child “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle”) and likely acquired “Bird Box” as a favor to Netflix film honcho Scott Stuber (who had initiated the project at Universal before joining the company), but it’s swooping in to pick up exciting movies, and developing projects that no other company in town would make. Which brings us to our list …
10 Best Netflix Films of 2018
Some have argued that if Netflix hadn’t stepped up to acquire Alfonso Cuarón’s intensely personal 135-minute, black-and-white, Mexico-set, Spanish-language art film, some other company would have, but the truth is, “Roma” could only exist at this moment, when Netflix is willing to gamble on the kind of movies no studio would back (considering that, over the past quarter-century, only a dozen foreign-language films have earned more than $15 million in U.S. theaters — “Roma’s” estimated budget, and less than Participant Media was asking distributors to pony up, based on roughly 15 minutes of footage and a whole lot of faith). Granted, Cuarón’s hindsight-enhanced tribute to the housekeeper who raised him was shot on detail-rich high-definition digital cameras and practically screams out for a big-screen experience. Is it a shame that the film is getting a smaller theatrical rollout than most year-end awards contenders? Sure, but the trade-off is that people living in cities where such a movie would never screen were able to see this deserving Venice Film Festival winner the day it was released, as evidenced by a Christmas Day conversation with cousins who live in rural Hesperia, Calif.
2. “Sunday’s Illness”
Speaking of exquisite Spanish-language movies, one of the best-kept secrets on Netflix this year has been Ramón Salazar’s gorgeous, perfectly calibrated study of a self-made society woman forced to spend 10 days with the grown daughter whose existence she conveniently scrubbed for fear that it would jeopardize her newfound aristocratic status. Netflix’s dealings around the world (where many markets require the company to dedicate a percentage of its service to local content) have compelled it to take a proactive role in co-producing interesting projects, and this one got a bigger push in Spanish markets. Like “I Am Love,” this festival treasure takes a sensuous yet nuanced approach to family melodrama, revealing fresh facets to an age-old dynamic.
Technically, Alex Garland’s tricksy second feature — an even more ambitious follow-up to the mind-bending “Ex Machina” that stars Natalie Portman and a mostly female cast — was released by Paramount in the U.S., although the studio got cold feet about the movie (considered too cerebral for regular sci-fi audiences) and sold international distribution rights to Netflix. At the time, I took that news as a scandal, since overseas audiences wouldn’t have a chance to see the marvels of Area X on the big screen. With distance, however, it seems “Annihilation” actually did better where word of mouth had a chance to build.
4. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
Many of us were confused when the Coen brothers’ off-the-wall Western was first reported as a TV series, but the end result proved far more enticing — a typically eccentric six-part anthology film in which each star-studded “chapter” could conceivably stand alone, or else be binge-watched as a single feature. That’s one of the beauties of Netflix, as illustrated by the “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” interactive-viewing experiment: Without passive audiences, MPAA ratings, and theater-imposed runtime limits, artists are free to innovate. In “Buster Scruggs,” each bit sparkles, but the vignette featuring Zoe Kazan as woman navigating the Oregon trail is a real gem.
5. “Come Sunday”
You could tell something was different about this year’s Netflix slate as early as January, when the company unveiled a handful of original projects at the Sundance Film Festival, ranging from Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” (which landed on quite a few critics’ year-end lists) and David Wain’s “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” (disappointing) to Gloria Allred portrait “Seeing Allred” and the buzzy multipart doc series “Wild, Wild Country.” The best of these was Joshua Marston’s remarkable adaptation of a “This American Life” story about a Pentecostal preacher — an Oscar-worthy performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor — who was cast out after questioning the church’s idea of hell. The result was a sensitive, intelligent film aimed squarely at the faith-based crowd, who’ve grown weary of Hollywood’s heathen ways.
6. “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead”
If Netflix really were out to destroy cinema, as some insist, then what could explain the company’s decision to finance the completion of Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” perhaps the most legendary unfinished film of all time? All but buried on the service, the wild half-century-in-the-making opus feels avant-garde even by today’s standards — essential viewing, however imperfect — further illuminated by this great feature-length documentary about the cursed production from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” director Morgan Neville. When film buffs thank the cinema gods for bringing these two projects to light, they’re really praying to Netflix.
7. “Happy as Lazzaro”
One of two movies Netflix acquired at the Cannes Film Festival (the other, Belgian trans drama “Girl,” releases later this month), Alice Rohrwacher’s “Happy as Lazzaro” opens with a bucolic portrait of sharecroppers on an Italian tobacco plantation before taking a turn into unexpected territory. This is a perfect example of a foreign film that would be hard-pressed to gross more than $1 million in U.S. theaters (remember, last year’s Oscar winner “A Fantastic Woman” earned just $2 million) but can now be seen by anyone with a Netflix subscription. Also worth checking out: last year’s Oscar-nominated “On Body and Soul.”
8. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”
For all the talk that diversity and representation have generated in the press, Hollywood remains distressingly slow to entrust non-male, non-white talent on most projects. Take a look at Netflix’s hiring practices, however, and you’ll see far more inclusion on both sides of the camera than in the industry at large: oodles of films directed by women (like “The Land of Steady Habits”) and featuring prominent roles for people of color (such as “Nappily Ever After”). This teen-targeted romantic comedy, already greenlit for sequels, checks all those boxes, updating the John Hughes formula for the iGeneration, who expect no less.
9. “Set It Up”
Also written and directed by women, this more adult-skewing farce fills a niche increasingly overlooked by the majors — where traditional, crowd-pleasing romantic comedies were a staple — now that studios are doing fewer mid-range movies in favor of massive franchise pictures based on established properties. But Netflix has the data to show audiences love a good date movie (which presumably explains their infatuation with Adam Devine), even if that now means ordering in and curling up on the couch — which is the perfect way to enjoy this winsome matchmaking comedy about two overworked assistants who scheme to fix their bosses up with each other.
10. “22 July”
There’s something perverse about watching a movie like “22 July” seated behind someone eating buttered popcorn by the fistful, so perhaps it’s better to watch this one at home alone, where you can properly reflect upon Paul Greengrass’ faithful re-creation of Norway’s bloodiest terrorist attack (I say this as someone who has screened “Battle of Algiers” in class but asks students to watch “United 93” on their own). More relevant than ever amid Europe’s alarming swing toward nationalism, this infuriating yet ultimately rewarding film starts with an unconscionable crime and ends with one survivor’s unexpected appeal for forgiveness.