With many of us using this time of quarantining to watch streaming services, I thought that it would only be fitting for this edition of The Ultimate Choice to highlight the best of what is proving to be a strong production company in the form of Netflix, perhaps giving some of you a new film to watch without paying for a VOD or having to rummage through your DVD collection. Here are our recommendations for the best Netflix Original Movies.
Chosen by Amy Smith (me)
For several years now, Netflix has been producing original movies that are in general either average or just bad. Up until 2019, the only Netflix Original Movie I thought was incredibly strong was Roma. However, they certainly stepped up their game in 2019 giving us some stunning movies from major visionaries. However, there is only one film from Netflix that I have given a top score to and that is Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.
Truth be told, I still believe that Marriage Story should have won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar at the Academy Awards, the writing is just that good. This is a film filled completely with dialogue, and it is the balance of the dialogue between Adam Driver’s Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole that makes us watch this relationship fall apart and not fully blame either side for the situation. It feels completely human, with every character fleshed out and filled with purpose for the movie. People may comment on the argument sequence out of context in terms of over-dramatisation, but in the context of the film it is superbly built up and performed incredibly by both Driver and Johansson, giving extra weight to the roles and the story.
This could have been a slow burn and a tough film to watch, and with the subject matter it is certainly not a joyous film to watch for sure. However, Baumbach sprinkles in these happy musical numbers and humourous situations and characters to reflect life and to make the film flow nicer. It is not a melodrama like Blue Jasmine, it is a heartbreaking story of a failed marriage in a very real world, and not everything has to be doom and gloom. In every bad situation, there is a silver lining to it and this film presents that not only in the lighter moments, but the idea that even though this marriage failed the couple still care about each other on an emotional level, presenting only the most human of behaviour with a script so tightly followed yet beautifully executed.
In all honesty, I wasn’t ready for this film. While I had been a casual admirer of the writer/director Noah Baumbach, I had never truly adored anything he had previously produced. Laura Dern had always been enjoyable, but also not someone I was a massive fan of either. If I was somewhat apathetic towards those two, I was even more indifferent to Scarlett Johansson. Adam Driver was probably the one who’s performance I was excited about the most.
Marriage Story instantly was a revelation. It’s rare that you get the career-best work out of two actors in a film together, let along three. While Driver, Johansson and Dern were the standouts, and rightfully all nominated for Oscars, there was also no faulting the supporting work either, from the likes of Alan Alda or Ray Liotta.
That said, having great acting doesn’t always necessarily make for a great film. Great films are ones that can elicit a range of emotions from the audience. Marriage Story does something rare, in which the antagonist and protagonist of the movie flips from scene to scene. It’s a carefully woven narrative that constantly has you questioning your own morals and ethics.
Another aspect of brilliance for me was in how intimate it felt. It’s clearly a very personal story for Noah Baumbach, who has said that he based a lot of the movie on his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh. Johansson was also in the midst of a divorce when she was cast, and you could see her leave a lot of genuine emotion up on the screen. As an audience, we feel like we’ve legitimately stepped into the worst part of these characters’ lives and become a fly on the wall of their unravelling.
Spoiler alert, but it also somehow finds a way to finish the film on a positive note. As we see Johansson walk over to Driver, and tie up his shoe, we are left on a moment of hope. Regardless of what has happened before it, people can put aside their differences and come together to fix things which have come undone It’s a somewhat refreshing conclusion, and one that was almost needed given the preceding two hours.
Ultimately, all of these factors add up to make this my favourite Netflix original, but if you asked me again in a day or two, I could make a case for Roma or Annihilation being my favourite as well.
In 1988, I was a geeky 14-year-old kid and I knew that Eddie Murphy was the funniest human being on the planet. To this day, I can interject quotes from Coming to America when I’m talking to my contemporaries. The worldwide movie audience left Coming to America fully confident that Eddie Murphy was going to deliver something great.
But then things went sideways. I could speculate why but I don’t think anyone, even Murphy, really knows. But the next 20 years of his career were a wildly inconsistent litany of terrible movies, hilarious voice-over animation roles, extended SNL gags, and some bizarre films that defy easy characterization. There were bright moments but none of them dominated the global audience like Coming to America.
Dolemite is My Name was never going to dominate the box office. But it was the first time since 1988 that a role really utilized all of Murphy’s unique skill set. Any fan of his standup will attest to his flawless comic delivery and infectious charisma. no one will confuse him with Denzel Washington but he’s a fine actor and can handle more than punchlines. In Dolemite is My Name, he plays Rudy Ray Moore, the creator of the Dolemite character which was the centre of several blockbuster blaxploitation films. As with most true stories, you will recognize similar elements: the hero starts from nothing to overcoming institutional doubt and exit in triumph. Murphy is almost tailor-made for this role. He plays a lewd dreamer who doesn’t know how his “life got so small”. He finds comic treasure in the bawdy stories of local homeless people and transforms these stories into a character that gets enough juice to make the biggest screen dream seem within reach. Director Craig Brewer has assembled a brilliant cast of comic stars: Keegan-Michael Key, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Chris Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Mike Epps, Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, it is a surfeit of riches. Any of these actors could be the second half of a movie and Brewer guides them to bounce off each other in a frenetic, hilarious, raunchy 70s era comic opera.
But all of these fine players take a backseat to the best turn of Wesley Snipes’ career. My apologies to devotees of the Blade trilogy, New Jack City and White Men Can’t Jump. Who knew Wesley Snipes could be so funny? He plays a delusional alcoholic, barely better than no-name, actor who adds credibility to the rest of Rudy’s less-than-no-name friends. He begrudgingly accepts the director role for Rudy’s film and regrets his choice immediately but reigns in his “cinemagical” megalomania, accepts his set, and supports Dolemite’s rowdy brilliance. He is a revelation. I cannot remember the last time I have seen a long-established actor show a completely new skill set. At the point in a career when most actors are just playing their personality each time out, Snipes goes for broke and steals every single scene. And, he is stealing them from a revitalized Murphy whose on-screen charisma is one of a kind.
I called my 14-year-old self, using the time travel phone. He was so happy to hear that a legend from this childhood was back to the height of his powers. And so will you.
In a year where Netflix garnered the most nominations of any other studio at the 2020 Oscars with names likes Scorsese & Baumbach, there was one film directed by a master of his craft that was largely overlooked: High Flying Bird.
With cinematography, editing and direction by the prolific Steven Soderbergh, High Flying Bird takes off from the opening tip to its pointed yet winking conclusion. Written by Oscar winner and renowned playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), the film takes us on a 72-hour end-around on the NBA team owners conducted by sports agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) in order to end an NBA lockout. Many people will look at that description or watch this film and think “Wait. This is a movie about basketball, but there are no scenes actually playing basketball?” Yes and no. Yes, there are no games played out in this movie, but no, this movie is not really about basketball: it’s about knowing your worth and never losing sight of it, even in the face of business pressures and racial divide.
McCraney uses basketball as the backdrop to put a heartbeat to the life work of Dr. Harry Edwards, a titan and scholar in the subject of the conflicts at the interface of sport, race and society. Ray Burke gives a gift to his rookie star Erick Scott that he calls a “bible” which turns out to be a book written by Dr. Edwards (even Edwards himself makes an appearance at the very end of the film in a meeting with Ray Burke). Stories like the integration of African-Americans into the NBA as a strategy to end the competition of the Harlem Globetrotters are used to show how the previously mentioned interface can occur and how making the right decisions for the long-term in the face of short gains are necessary for actual progress.
With all that said, many people might be turned off thinking the film might be too heavy-handed or serious of a sports film to be enjoyed. Did you forget this is Steven Soderbergh?! He lives to make witty, accessible films out of overwhelming power struggles. many of you might be doing your re-watch of Contagion right now given our current situation. The hallmarks of some of his most popular films are seen throughout High Flying Bird. At times, it has the playfulness and pacing of an Ocean’s Eleven, the humor and intelligence of an Erin Brockovich in Ray Burke, and the power dynamics of films like Traffic, The Informant!, and even his 2019 Netflix follow-up The Laundromat. To add a degree of difficulty, Soderbergh even shot this on an iPhone with a two million dollar budget, and it looks great!
High Flying Bird is a film with a worthy message helmed by award-winning creators and anchored by a star-making performance from Andre Holland. Don’t let this film be overlooked any further.