It pays to be original.
Netflix has had a rough start to 2022. The streaming giant lost 200 000 subscribers; its shares are down 37%, and it recently laid off 150 employees. There are many reasons for this, including competition from other streaming sites and people spending less time at home. It remains to be seen how much these losses will prompt Netflix to shake up the production and distribution side.
Indeed, Netflix's original content can be a decidedly mixed bag. They've leaned into throwing out many movies and shows targeting niche audiences. Not all of them stick the landing. Nevertheless, they've also had their fair share of successes. Just this year, Netflix received a whopping 72 Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nod for The Power of the Dog. Even as their position as the dominant streaming platform seems doubtful, their original productions prove they can keep pace with Hollywood.
In addition to its English content, Netflix has also produced several great foreign-language films. One of the best is Happy as Lazzaro, a drama about workers on a tobacco farm in rural Italy. Alice Rohrwacher's film explores class and rural-urban divides but brings in some supernatural elements, even time travel.
Happy as Lazzaro is poignant and thoughtful, with a lot to say about exploitation and individual responsibility. Its weighty subject matter is held together by gorgeous cinematography and a brilliant performance by lead Adriano Tardiolo. It's perfect for fans of class-conscious dramas like Bong Joon-ho's Parasite.
I Lost My Body is a French animated film about a severed hand seeking to rejoin its body. Seriously. The movie follows the hand on its quest across France, encountering all sorts of threats and obstacles on the way. It's like Wes Anderson made a movie about Thing from The Addams Family.
The tale of the crawling hand intersects with a love story about pizza delivery boy Naoufel (Hakim Faris) and a young woman named Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois). If this all sounds bizarre, that's because it is. Jérémy Clapin's movie uses its off-kilter premise to make genuinely touching points about love, loss, and moving on after tragedy.
A Twelve-Year Night tells the true story of the Uruguayan government's brutal treatment of three political prisoners in the 1970s. The prisoners were members of the Tupamaros, an urban guerrilla group that resisted the military dictatorship. The government hoped to break the prisoners' spirit — even their sanity. But things did not go entirely as the military junta planned. The prisoners later become national figures: one of them is even elected president of Uruguay.
Álvaro Brechner's film could have been a dry exercise in historical reenactment, but instead, it's a stylish thriller carried along by impressive cinematography and rapid-fire editing. It delves into a dark chapter of history while remaining entertaining and immersive.
The Two Popes dramatizes a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), more well-known now as Pope Francis. After the leak of documents revealing corruption by the Church, Pope Benedict summons Bergoglio to the Vatican to convince him not to resign in protest.
The film is a two-hander (a play or film featuring only or primarily two main characters) revolving around the conversations between Benedict and Bergoglio. They discuss all the big topics: the Church's place in the 21st century, how best to serve God, and even Swedish pop sensations ABBA. Hopkins and Pryce bring out the best in each other. The former is both dour and mischievous, all twinkling eyes and sharp jokes, while Pryce is the reverse: light-hearted on the surface but with hidden depth. Director Fernando Meirelles, known for dramas like City of God and The Constant Gardener, brings the material to life with energetic camera work and an unorthodox soundtrack. The film radiates a sense of joy that can't help but be infectious.
Roma stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, a housekeeper for an upper-class family in 1970s Mexico City. After an affair, Cleo gets pregnant, which threatens to upend her life. But Roma is about character and imagery rather than plot. It's a slice-of-life film that recreates a specific time and place.
It's also the most personal movie by director Alfonso Cuarón. Cuarón has had a sui generis career. His films range from intimate dramas like Y tu mamá también to fantastical epics like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men. Roma combines disparate elements from his filmography. It features emotional and intimate storytelling alongside confident, stylish visuals. The film draws on Cuarón's childhood experiences in Mexico, lending it a realism that will appeal to fans of his other work.
Beasts of No Nation follows the life of child soldier Agu (Abraham Attah) in a fictional African country. Agu is under the tutelage of The Commandant (Idris Elba), a warlord who seeks to use lost and hopeless children to secure his power.
Beasts is the third film by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who most recently directed the James Bond film No Time To Die. This Fukunaga project bears strong similarities to the first season of HBO's True Detective: Beasts of No Nation shares the show'svisual flair and detached take on brutality.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 deals with the protests against the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the subsequent fallout. The protests descended into violent riots, and seven protesters were tried for severe crimes.
The film's timing was appropriate, as 2020 was a year also riven by riots. Writer and director Aaron Sorkin update the story for a modern audience with his trademark snappy dialogue. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is frequently hilarious, particularly the Cheech & Chong-esque bromance between Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, and Caitlin FitzGerald also gave great performances.
No Netflix film was more anticipated than Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. It is an epic in so many ways, from the reunion of Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel to its three-and-a-half-hour runtime, which only a streaming platform could accommodate. It also marked Scorsese's return to the gangster genre, with De Niro (aided by some de-aging CGI) playing a real-life mobster who worked for Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa.
The Irishman can be uneven, and the de-aged de Niro is sometimes unsettling, but overall it succeeds as a kind of greatest hits and closing chapter of Scorsese's mob movies. Like Scorsese's best work, The Irishman raises questions about violence, morality, and identity and offers no easy answers.
Director Noah Baumbach has been making dialogue-driven critical darlings for decades. Like The Squid and the Whale and The Meyerowitz Stories, his best films are brutal excavations of family and relationships – usually with a generous dose of acerbic wit.
Marriage Storyelevates this formula to new heights. In large part, this is thanks to its stars. Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver are brilliant as an actor and director going through a messy divorce. They practically sing Baumbach's dialogue. The film gives Driver, in particular, an opportunity to explore new emotional depths in his career as an actor.
Klaus ditches holiday movie cliches to deliver a fresh take on the Santa Claus legend. The story isn't groundbreaking or anything, but it's full of charm thanks to the talented voice cast led by Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, and Rashida Jones.
The animation style is the real highlight. It draws on woodcuts and classic hand-drawn Disney films. Director Sergio Pablos actually worked in Disney's hand-drawn department back in the day, contributing to films like Tarzan and Hercules. Klaus has the warm, natural look of those movies. The result is a distinctive visual world that is a welcome departure from the photorealistic CGI that currently dominates animation.
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Luc Haasbroek is a writer and videographer from Durban, South Africa. A lifelong movie nerd, he’s written for sites like Paste and Briefly. Luc has also worked behind the camera on short films and other projects. When not writing or watching LOTR marathons, Luc hangs out with his cats and generally forgets where he’s left his keys.
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It pays to be original.