Yes, that restless disruptor Netflix has almost certainly secured itself a Best Picture nominee with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a movie you can stream anytime. That triumph comes with some controversy, as Hollywood now begrudgingly must honor a company committed to upending the business model of theatrical distribution, but it’s hard to gainsay Netflix’s strategy in this instance. It merely offered a great director the money and freedom required to fulfill a singular vision. In short, the streaming site let a filmmaker make a film.
Netflix has done that often lately, offering subscribers treats like the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Nicole Holofcener’s The Land of Steady Habits. (And it’s planning to premiere at least 90 Netflix-produced movies in 2019.) Like the established studios, Netflix has tended to hold its best, most thoughtful films until late in the year. Currently, it’s offering a glut of first-rate new movies, many as strong as (or stronger than) what’s actually playing in cinemas. Here’s a guide to some that have gotten less attention than Roma and Scruggs.
Director Daniel Goldhaber’s cam-girl thriller looks, in its first minutes, like the Unfriended-era sexploitation genre trash you might expect it to be, with horny anonymous randos badgering online sex worker Alice (Madeline Brewer) to kill herself while they jack it. But let it play a while. After a knockout fakeout, Cam proves itself a surprisingly textured study of the hard work of getting tips out of porn surfers, a film that posits cam stardom as existing at a complex nexus of art, commerce, algorithm management and old-fashioned hustle. (Screenwriter Isa Mazzei has worked as a cam model.) Like Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, Cam offers enough T&A to secure its own financing, but its heart is in the work itself. Its creepy dual-identity plot builds to a satisfying — and surprising! — conclusion. But what’s gripping here is Alice’s endless labor, her anxiety about her “rank” at the website that streams her and the way the filmmakers manage to generate legit suspense without ever suggesting, as so many others would, that sex work invites violence.
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Like Roma, Sandi Tan’s tough-to-classify documentary is at heart a thrilling memory piece. As a teenager in Singapore, Tan wrote and starred in a squirrely-beautiful no-budget indie film about disaffected youth and a metaphorical murder spree. The clips we see from that film — called Shirkers — are weird and wondrous, and Tan, who narrates, isn’t flattering herself when she notes that its spirit seems to have infected later films like Rushmore and Ghost World. But nobody who might have been influenced by that Shirkers ever got to see it thanks to — well, best to let Tan’s documentary tell that startling tale. This Shirkers opens as a celebration of the punkish vibrancy of Tan and her friends in the Singapore of their youth in the late ’80s and early ’90s, rich in 'zine samples and private footage and clips from their favorite films. Then, slowly, bizarrely, it becomes something of a true crime drama as Tan reveals why the original Shirkers never made it to screens. She only truly discovers the full truth while making this doc; meanwhile, we meet her friends and principal collaborators from back in the day, most of whom have done quite well in film and film studies — all of whom were shaped (and even still mad about!) the movie that never was.
One of our era’s great comedies, Tamara Jenkins’ intimate, incisive Private Life centers on issues of fertility and surrogacy, though its broader concern is time itself — how it surges on even as everything we might have dedicated our lives to withers around us. Its leads, feminist writer Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), a one-time wunderkind of no-budget theatrical productions, find themselves desperate to conceive a child even as the doctors they pay thousands to (with borrowed money) speak frankly of the odds. Nearing 50, they’re not just facing the end of their potency. A child wouldn’t just fulfill their own innate needs to love and be loved; a new family member could also be their last, best chance to improve a fallen world. Eventually, after a host of piercingly funny scenes at clinics or in their apartment, including Richard administering painful shots and Rachel insisting he must be doing it wrong, they face one last possibility. Perhaps they could hire a young woman to donate an egg. Enter Sadie (Kayli Carter), Richard’s beaming stepniece. Jenkins (The Savages, Slums of Beverly Hills) is always more interested in emotional truth than she is in laughs. Throughout Private Life’s tense 124 minutes, she continually achieves both. Her excellent leads embody this duo without condescension or self-consciousness, betraying no sense that anything they say or do is funny — or creepy.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
Seriously! After years in limbo, Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle has swung over to Netflix, where damaged-goods studio castoffs like The Cloverfield Paradox get treated as events. But here’s the good news: I found Mowgli magnificent, a spirited pulp extravaganza of surprising thematic weight. The first few scenes are at times unpromising, especially an impromptu meeting of talking wolves and bears and big cats on what looks like the coronation rock from The Lion King. But once its story (written by Callie Kloves) takes hold, the movie purrs right along — until it builds in its last third to a pained, powerful roar. Like its hero, it’s caught between childhood play and the vicious reality of life as a hunter. The setup is the same as usual in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book-land. Feral human boy Mowgli (played with snarling buoyancy by Rohan Chand) must learn the law of the jungle from his animated animal pals, in this case the black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale), the laid-back brown bear Baloo (Serkis) and that python with its own mysterious agenda, Kaa (Cate Blanchett). This time, though, the lessons are urgent. The jungle is threatened by man, the wicked tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) a true terror vowing to one day taste that boy’s blood. Serkis played Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson, and he seems to have picked up that director’s best habits (compositions emphasizing the mythic, a rigorous clarity of action even as the camera wheels about, an inventive sadism) but not his bad ones (that relentless zeal to overstuff, overstate, over-dazzle).