Over my holiday break, I made an effort to keep busy. Between projects around my apartment and adventures around town, I mostly succeeded. I also made a resolution to put a dent in my Netflix queue, that all-too-often ignored list of films and series I’m interested in watching…someday.
I made a simple deal with myself: watch something on my queue (which felt like a chore), then watch something else (usually new or new-to-me and therefore shiny! exciting!). One for one, a simple bargain to knock out a bunch of stuff I’ve been meaning to watch forever.
Turns out, I found a few gems in there. And considering everyone and their brother has a Netflix account, I thought I’d share what I discovered, in case there’s anything you’d like to watch, too.
The Overnighters – a documentary hit at the 2104 Sundance Film Festival, and it was shortlisted for an Oscar later that year. At the time, I must not’ve sought it out in theaters and completely missed it on its PBS broadcast. Better late than never, as the film is captivating, revealing as it does the lives of the men served by a community church and the pastor who runs it. The first two thirds are imbued with a tension I was waiting to pay off in the last third, and does it ever. I tried to find some update on the subjects featured, but nothing recent came up. Regardless, it’s a worthwhile snapshot in time of one imperfect man’s effort to change the world around him for the better.
Two Days, One Night – Also a 2014 release, this one’s been sitting there on my queue for about as long and every time I click into it, I skip by it. Maybe I’m not in the mood for a foreign film, maybe I’m not in the mood for something too heavy. Once I did hit play, I was locked in from the get go. Marion Cotillard plays a factory worker at risk of losing her job if she can’t convince her coworkers to keep her on over the weekend, rather than opt for a bonus paycheck. I’m a fan of films that can compress high-stakes drama into a small timeframe, and the Dardennes do that well with their story that only covers Friday evening to Monday morning. Even two years later, it’s a timely story of the struggle to build a life in the middle class.
The Ivory Game – I added this one to my queue only recently, as it was this year’s Winter on Fire, a Netflix documentary that came essentially out of nowhere to nab a spot on the Oscar documentary shortlist. With the potential to be nominated, I decided to give it a look, but it was hard to do. Covering the state of the illegal ivory trade in China, it’s scary to see the lengths poachers will go to for their commodity, and the similar strides activists are taking to stop them. The filmmakers make no attempt to sugarcoat the brutality – or the scale of the problem. By far not the best documentary of the year, it’s still a valid entry into the expanding-horizons-through-film documentary genre. The more you know.
Instructions Not Included – I added this one to my queue back when I was seeing all kinds of stories in the trades about just what a blockbuster it ended up being. Make no mistake, this Mexican family film about a playboy who becomes a single dad when a past love drops his daughter off on his doorstep is not good. But it’s approachable and non-threatening, and it found Spanish-speaking audiences in the U.S. to the tune of a $99M box office.
Last Days in Vietnam – Unlike The Overnighters, Last Days in Vietnam did go on to an Oscar nomination in 2014, and deservedly so. I’m intrigued by coverage of historical and cultural milestones of the ’70s; it’s a decade that I recognize cognitively is fairly recent, and yet have a distance from, given I wasn’t born yet. Only as it gets further away is it more wholly visible to us, and this documentary is riveting in the context and urgency it lends to the U.S. retreat from Vietnam in 1973. With archival footage and present day interviews with those who experienced it, if I were a high school social studies teacher, it’d be an essential part of my annual curriculum.
Other People – Several people have noted that this indie was worth a look, an underrated entry into the small-budget U.S. narratives of the year. I wish I could say I agree. I wasn’t disappointed in it, but neither did I find it revelatory in any way. It’s a charming enough film, and Molly Shannon is wonderful as a mother of grown children dying of cancer. I just never connected with Jesse Plemons, her gay son returned home to care for her, back in the small town that he’d escaped for the big, liberal city. If it’s a moving family dramedy you’re looking for, better to seek out Dan in Real Life or The Spectacular Now.
The Invitation – I’m getting better about scary movies in my old age; dare I say, I enjoy them now and then. At least, when they’re thoughtful and sharp like The Invitation. Centered around a guy and his girlfriend invited back to his ex’s house for a dinner party turned cult recruitment, all the action takes place in the three rooms of the house he once shared with his ex and their son. As secrets emerge and the truth of the evening comes to light, things quickly go off the deep end in the very darkest, very best way. As far as underrated goes, I’d say this one is worth attention it never seemed to get in theaters.
Sing Street – This beauty hasn’t been in my queue long, but I did watch it again so I’m included it here. Because it’s my blog and my rules. So there. I’ve already written up how much I loved this movie; you can read about it here.
Penny Dreadful – I knocked out the three seasons of this noir fantasy series in just about a week, so addicted was I after just a few episodes. It’s a period piece, but like nothing you’ve ever seen before, with the marquee ensemble cast (Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Rory Kinear and more) creating a motley crew of literature’s most legendary monsters and frights. There’s vampires and Frankenstein’s monster, gunslingers and dark magic. Layer on top of that a few great character-driven plot lines (love! murder! intrigue!) and it’s perfect for a rainy a weekend binge. Or just a general, anytime binge, too.