Netflix seems to have stemmed its subscriber hemorrhage, announcing during its second-quarter earnings call that it lost only 970 thousand subscribers during the quarter (the service apparently expected to lose many more than that). If you’re sticking with the service, we recommend catching these 30 original Netflix productions. After all, who has the time to sift through everything in search of entertainment that’s truly worth your time?
That said, we’ll start this list with one new Netflix production that–despite its star power–we heartily recommend you skip.
Updated July 22, 2022 to add Jeff’s latest recommendations. Jeff’s earlier picks follow, starting with Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood.
To a casual viewer, Joseph Kosinski’s Spiderhead (2022) may seem like a star-driven sci-fi tale done just well enough to satisfy without leaving a lasting impression. If one is familiar with the superb short story it’s based on, “Escape from Spiderhead,” by George Saunders (from his masterful 2013 collection Tenth of December), it elicits a different reaction. Except for (unsurprisingly) the ending, the film follows the story closely, while almost entirely missing its deeply cynical point.
Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) are prisoners serving their time in a drug-testing facility. Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) gives them everything from drugs to make them fall in love, to “Darkenfloxx,” which causes untold anguish. After an ironic series of cross-reference tests, Jeff realizes the true sinister nature of the place and decides to take drastic measures. Director Kosinski, whose Top Gun: Maverick is still burning up theaters, can’t quite give this one the same thrust.
Adam Sandler had one of his best recent roles in Uncut Gems, an anxious, jittery, Jenga-tower of a performance that left you wrung out. He maintains that level of quality in the excellent Hustle (2022), thankfully at a much more relaxed pace. In a film that incorporates Sandler’s lifelong love of basketball, he plays Stanley Sugerman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, who has been on the road too long, eating too much junk food, and missing out on life with his wife (Queen Latifah) and teen daughter (Jordan Hull). At long last, the team owner (Robert Duvall) gives Stanley his shot with an assistant coach position. Unfortunately, Duvall’s character suddenly dies, leaving the team in the hands of his ruthless son (Ben Foster), who sends Stanley back out on the road.
In Spain, Stanley meets the raw, young Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), who may just be his ticket back. Hustle is an unapologetically old-fashioned sports drama but given a dose of organic life that keeps it feeling constantly fresh. Look for a spate of real-life NBA stars, including Seth Curry, Julius Irving, and Charles Barkley.
The Sea Beast
Directed and co-written by Chris Williams (Moana and Big Hero 6), the animated adventure The Sea Beast (2022) has certain things in common with the How to Train Your Dragon series but is quite a bit more daring in its themes, and more tactile in its physical presentation. A ship called The Inevitable—led by the crusty Captain Crow (voiced by Jared Harris) and his scowling first mate Sarah Sharpe (voiced by Marianne Jean-Baptiste)—is charged with hunting giant sea monsters. The Captain is nearly ready to pass on his mantle to his adoptive son Jacob (voiced by Karl Urban), but on this voyage, a young stowaway, Maisie (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator), upsets things. She and Jacob discover that the beast known as the Red Bluster actually means no harm.
The superb animation captures the feel of the sea; the size, weight, and texture of the monster; and plenty of other vivid details. During the final denouement, the story subtly equates the monsters—innocent but painted by those in power to look dangerous—with immigrants, creating an emotional, rather than contextual, impact.
Trees of Peace
Alanna Brown’s Trees of Peace (2022) is one of the most harrowing movies you will ever see, inspiring viewers to curl up into a tight ball, both physically and emotionally, but its power is undeniable, and its rewards are many. It takes place in 1994 in Rwanda, when the Hutu people began killing the Tutsi people, en masse, sparking a genocide. (According to an opening crawl, hatred was whipped up between the two groups by Belgian colonizers.) Four women escape the killings by hiding in a small food cellar, fitted with one tiny window, for what they expect will be only a couple of days. As time drags on, their stories come out.
Annick (Eliane Umuhire) is pregnant after several miscarriages, Sister Jeannette (Charmaine Bingwa) is a nun and a teacher, Mutesi (Bola Koleosho)—with blood on her collar throughout—is cynical and hostile, and Peyton (Ella Cannon) is a volunteer from America with a dark past. The women argue, talk, tell stories, support one another, and just generally try to survive, while Brown deftly balances existential dread with small moments of hope.
Here are Jeff’s earlier recommendations, presented in alphabetical order.
Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
That great filmmaker Richard Linklater returns with this warm, funny coming-of-age story, somewhat based on his own childhood growing up in Houston, TX, during the Space Race. Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood (2022) is presented in an animated format similar to the rotoscope technique Linklater used for his Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
With a spot-on Jack Black narrating the tale from an adult point of view, it tells the story of Stanley, who is chosen by NASA to be the first kid to walk on the moon (they’ve made a mistake and built a cockpit too small for an adult). In and around this imaginary story is a vivid portrait of the times, the food, cars, entertainment, and family life, as well as both the excitement (and boredom) of watching the moon landing on television. The movie has a loose, affectionate feel, not dissimilar to Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, but closer to School of Rock in terms of family-friendliness.
This beautiful movie from Senegal—in Wolof and French with English subtitles—is an old-fashioned romantic tragedy that could have been written for a silent-era film, a social commentary, and a supernatural ghost story, all at the same time. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) and several like-minded colleagues decide to take a boat to Spain to look for better work opportunities. He leaves behind his true love, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who is set to be married to the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla). On their wedding day, their bed catches fire, and a detective, Issa (Amadou Mbow), is assigned to investigate the case as potential arson.
Meanwhile, at nightfall every night, several people seem to be possessed by spirits, their eyes turning into white orbs. Directed by Mati Diop—who became the first Black woman with a film in competition at the Cannes Film Festival—Atlantics (2019) is quiet and poetic, seeing its images with an ethereal gaze, and moving through its familiar story threads with a fresh kind of mystery.
Director McG (Charlie’s Angels) perfectly applies his slick, gumball-machine style to the Netflix original The Babysitter (2017), a popcorn horror story about a 12-year-old boy, Cole (Judah Lewis), whose parents still hire a babysitter for him. Gorgeous blonde Bee (Samara Weaving) adores Cole and even protects him from bullies. But after he is supposed to be in bed, Cole sneaks out to spy on Bee and her friends and discovers some unsettling truths.
The rest of the cast are hilarious “types;” i.e., the sexy cheerleader (Bella Thorne), the goth girl (Hana Mae Lee), the Black dude (Andrew Bachelor), and the shirtless hot guy (Robbie Amell). The Babysitter is essentially a chase movie, but zippy, sexy, darkly funny, and constantly creative, with a fluid sense of space and movement, as well as lots of blood. Leslie Bibb and Ken Marino play Cole’s parents.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The amazing Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, offer up this anthology Western with six strange stories, ranging from the hilarious—Tim Blake Nelson as the verbose sharpshooter in the title story—to the disquieting; i.e. Liam Neeson and Harry Melling in “Meal Ticket,” about an armless, legless actor.
James Franco is very funny in a beautifully constructed episode about winding up at the wrong end of a rope, Brendan Gleeson plays a rider on a stagecoach whose destination is uncertain, Zoe Kazan stars as a troubled woman on a wagon train, and Tom Waits appears in a wonderful episode, “All Gold Canyon,” faithfully adapted from a Jack London story, although Waits’s gravelly warbling of the song “Mother Macree” as he works is probably not something London envisioned.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) is as expansively beautiful as the Coens’ other Westerns True Grit and No Country for Old Men, but it’s also as dark and as mysterious as Barton Fink.
Beasts of No Nation
Netflix’s very first original streaming movie, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015) caused quite a controversy when it first arrived; certain theater chains boycotted it, and then (possibly in relation to this), the film received no Oscar nominations, sparking an outrage about lack of cultural diversity (#OscarsSoWhite). But all that aside, the movie itself is a powerhouse: brutal, crisply paced, and still somewhat optimistic.
Abraham Attah gives an astonishing performance as Agu, a young boy caught in an African civil war. When his father and brother are killed, he runs into the jungle and is discovered by a band of guerrilla soldiers, most of them not much older than Agu, and led by the fearsome Commandant (Idris Elba). The Commandant ensures their survival, but also exposes them to shocking horrors. In one heartbreaking moment, we see how Agu has become numb: laughing and playing games as men are shot behind him. Elba’s creation is monstrous, proud, vain, and vile, and the actor received numerous other nominations and awards for his performance.
Bo Burnham: Inside
There will no doubt be many things written, recorded, and filmed about the COVID-19 pandemic, but Bo Burnham: Inside (2021) will be among the most penetrating. The former stand-up comic turned director (Eighth Grade) and actor (Promising Young Woman) was about to take to the stage again when the pandemic hit, so he made this collection of funny, dark songs and sketches and clever lighting effects entirely in his home, entirely by himself.
There are laughs here, but Inside is largely a dispiriting dive into a suffering psyche, as potent as Pink Floyd The Wall. It’s impossible to tell where Burnham’s creative whirlwind begins and his descent into anxiety-ridden madness ends, but it feels like a true, unfettered unburdening of the soul.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s grandiose Vietnam-set, treasure-hunting adventure Da 5 Bloods (2020) is brimming with full-blooded themes and righteous fury. Four war buddies who fought in Vietnam reunite, officially to locate the remains of their beloved squad leader (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman), but unofficially to collect a cache of buried gold. The five are: the tormented, angry Paul (Delroy Lindo, in a great, ferocious performance), the kindly Otis (Clarke Peters), the pigeon-toed Eddie (Norm Lewis), and laid-back Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).
Into his heady brew, Lee throws in long-buried landmines, an old jungle temple, a MAGA hat, Black Lives Matter, Martin Luther King Jr., the involvement of Black soldiers in a white war, and shocking revelations about the war itself. Terence Blanchard’s Oscar-nominated score—thick and lavish, sounding like beauty and sorrow entwined—makes the production seem even more operatic.
Dolemite Is My Name
The biopic Dolemite Is My Name (2019), written by the masters of the biopic, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes), focuses on what some might consider a marginal talent, Rudy Ray Moore. He was a struggling musician and comedian who finally finds a hit with his “Dolemite” character, and decides to make his very own, low-budget movie, regardless of talent or know-how.
Eddie Murphy gives a masterful performance as Moore, one of his career best, finding moments of pride, humanity, and humility in the offbeat character. Wesley Snipes is hilarious as the dubious director D’Urville Martin, but Da’Vine Joy Randolph, as performer Lady Reed, is the key to the whole thing. On the day of the premiere, she tells Rudy, “I’d never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen,” and it’s a moment for the ages.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
Certainly one of the greatest TV series of all time, Breaking Bad wrapped up almost perfectly in 2013, but a few years later, Vince Gilligan offered this 122-minute coda. Essentially, it details Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) escaping from his captors and spending the entire movie trying to get the hell out of Dodge. And that’s it.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad (2019) movie may be almost totally unnecessary, and it feels as if virtually nothing happens in it, and yet it’s like a riveting, masterful neo-Western, making incredible uses of sparse, vast, unfriendly spaces and creating rippling tension and emotional cascades. Some old familiar faces—including Badger (Matt Jones), Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks)—turn up, as well as some new ones; Robert Forster, who, astonishingly, passed away the day this premiered, is terrific.
Fear Street Trilogy
Based on a series of Young Adult novels by R.L. Stine and directed by Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon), the three Fear Street movies achieve the neat trick of feeling like YA stories, but including grown-up gore to please more sophisticated horror fans. Fear Street: Part One – 1994 sets up the tale about a centuries-old witch, “Sarah Fier,” who possesses the bodies of teens and goes on murderous rampages (accompanied by some cool, vintage alt-rock tunes).
Fear Street: Part Two – 1978 is a summer-camp movie with high socks (think Meatballs meets Friday the 13th). And Fear Street: Part Three – 1666 transports all the actors back in time, playing earlier incarnations of themselves and ingeniously wrapping things up.
The king of Netflix horror, Mike Flanagan is the man behind Before I Wake and Hush, as well as the series The Haunting of Hill House. His Gerald’s Game (2017) is surely one of the best Stephen King adaptations of recent years. Set almost entirely inside a bedroom, it echoes Misery, but tells its own incredible story, with its own psychologically powerful twists.
Jessie (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) head to a remote lake house for a weekend of sex, but just as Gerald begins to get uncomfortably kinky, he dies of a heart attack, leaving Jessie cuffed to the bed. A stray dog comes into the picture (shades of Cujo), and Jessie begins speaking to apparitions of herself and her husband, and experiencing memories of her childhood that somehow pertain to her current situation. Worse, she begins to see a monster, a tall thing carrying a box of bones, in the dark corner. Many horror movies drop the ball before the end, but Flanagan sees this one out to a logical, humanistic, and satisfying conclusion.
This devastating horror film, directed by Remi Weekes, tells the story of a couple, Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), who flee South Sudan for a new life in England. They lose their daughter along the way, we learn, and they are placed in a wretched house, where they must live by several strict rules or be deported. Bol tries to fit in, while Rial continues to embrace her traditions. But soon, scary spirits appear in the house, and before long, Bol is tearing at the wallpaper and bashing in the drywall to stop the torment.
Filled with strange visions, powerful depictions of cultural divides, and impeccable storytelling, His House (2020) has a confident flow, placing us right there with this suffering couple, as it slowly unfolds their real story, and the real reason an apeth (night witch) has followed them. And it’s plenty scary, too.
The very strange, stop-motion animated The House (2022) was originally intended to be a series, but three episodes were instead edited into a feature-length film. In the first segment, a family of humans living in poverty is offered a chance to move into a huge house for free, but the parents become obsessed with the place, to the point of ignoring their children. In the second, a mouse in a suit has spent his life fixing up a beautiful house to sell, only to find it inhabited by unwanted guests. In the third—and best—segment, a cat struggles to collect rent and fix up her crumbling building, while flood waters rise outside.
The tone here is often strange and disturbing, but sometimes clever and beautiful as well. Irish playwright Enda Walsh wrote the script, and Mia Goth, Matthew Goode, Miranda Richardson, and Helena Bonham Carter, among others, provide voiceovers.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
The wonderful, unsung New Zealand-born actress Melanie Lynskey stars in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017) as Ruth Kimke, a nursing assistant who has a very bad day. A patient dies in front of her (after some nasty, vulgar last words), a man in a bar ruins a huge plot twist in a book she’s reading, and, to top it off, her home is burgled. The cops do little but scold her for not locking up tighter, but when her phone shows the location of her stolen laptop, she enlists a wacko neighbor, Tony (a perfect Elijah Wood), who has a collection of ninja throwing stars, to help get it back. The two find clues leading to the rest of her stolen goods, mainly her grandmother’s silverware, but things take a very weird turn.
This is the directorial debut of actor Macon Blair (Blue Ruin and Green Room); Blair also wrote the screenplay, and it cannily, and hilariously deals in life’s most mundane sorrows and searchings, the kind of stuff that most movies simply ignore. The movie’s shift in tone from its first half to its second can be shocking, but it’s also strangely satisfying.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
The one-of-a-kind screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) offers his third film as a director (after Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa), a twisty, shifting, dreamlike thing about a woman (Jessie Buckley) who goes with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to his parents’ house for dinner. They have strange, existential conversations in the car. Then, the parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) and a dog seem to age forward and backward, and food is consumed and then not consumed.
On the way home, they stop for a milkshake, and then at Jake’s old school, where a creepy janitor works and where a musical number happens! Kaufman fully inhabits the unstable, off-center world of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) with both intelligence and warmth of character.The film does have a point, though, and the novel it’s based on, by Iain Reid, might offer some clues.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Produced by Denzel Washington, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) is the second of August Wilson’s plays to be adapted to the screen, after Washington’s own Fences. It’s an incredible film, far more dynamic than most adaptations of plays, and blasting through its 94 minutes with jumping, stomping, and sweating.
In the 1920s, blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band arrive to cut some sides in a white-run recording studio in Chicago. In her panda-bear makeup and sinister gold teeth, Ma is a fierce figure, wielding a certain amount of power, but only for her immediate gratification, and Davis’ performance is masterful. Even more powerful is the final work by the unparalleled Chadwick Boseman as the swaggering trumpeter Levee. Director George C. Wolfe uses the studio’s spaces, its high windows, its dank basement, and a mysterious door, as part of the movie’s fabric, with all the pieces snapping together as it sings through its rage.
Noah Baumbach’s quasi-intellectual New York dramas usually owe more than a little to Woody Allen, and are frequently anxious and irritating, but for this film, he dug much deeper and struck something more honest. And, with cooler actors (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), rather than, say, the high-strung Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman in Baumbauch’s other Netflix film (The Meyerowitz Stories), Marriage Story (2019) achieves a genuinely touching emotional center.
Driver and Johansson play a New York showbiz couple—he’s a theater director, and she’s a movie actress—whose relationship begins to crumble, even though they still more or less like each other. The movie documents the ups and downs of the process of their splitting up, and its use of narration—as part of their couples counseling therapy—is inspired. The two leads received Oscar nominations, as did Laura Dern as Johansson’s shrewd, vicious lawyer.
An unusually delightful high-school coming-of-age story, Metal Lords (2022) is a big, huggable movie, with, surprisingly, a bit of a sledgehammer edge. Long-haired metal fan Hunter (Adrian Greensmith) and his unlikely best friend, nerdy Kevin (Jaeden Martell, from It and Knives Out), are in a band together. Kevin practices playing on a full drum kit after playing a single drum in the school marching band.
After a run-in with the school bully, Hunter impulsively signs them up for the Battle of the Bands competition, but they need a bass player. Enter Emily, a Scottish student who is kicked out of the school band, but is actually a brilliant cello player. Kevin tries to convince Hunter to allow Emily into the band (“no Yoko Onos!”), while many other obstacles arise before the big show. It might be familiar stuff, but it’s lively and “metal” enough to rawk on its own terms.
Dee Rees’ follow-up to her remarkable debut Pariah, the excellent Mudbound (2017) is like a Gone with the Wind for the streaming age, a sweeping slice of Americana, epic, but intimate. It’s based on a novel by Hillary Jordan and features Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, and Jonathan Banks. The story follows two farming families, one black and one white, over several years in and around WWII.
In one crucial plot thread, a member of each family, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), returns from war; they form an unlikely friendship, much to the rage of the rest of the community. (Ronsel is forced to duck down in the front seat of Jamie’s truck to avoid being seen in a place of equality.) Mary J. Blige steals the movie in her role as Ronsel’s mother, a strong, caring midwife glaring from behind sunglasses, and received a Best Supporting Actress nomination (as well as one for Best Song).
Many of the characters narrate their inner dreams, hopes, and fears in whispered voiceover, adding Malick-like poetry to the images. The 134-minute movie focuses on small incidents, having to do either with survival in the muddy farmland, or with the deep, frightening racism of that time and place, and never feels too overstuffed or too long.
The Korean director Bong Joon-ho became something of a household name after winning multiple Oscars for his great Parasite. His earlier film, the slick, international, all-star Okja (2017), contains some of the same themes; i.e. humanity as monsters. It’s perhaps his busiest, but most playful work, offering laughs, thrills, weird visuals, and some disconcerting thoughts about food.
CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has developed a kind of super-pig designed to ease world hunger and bolster her company’s image. The pigs have been sent to the four corners of the world to be raised by local methods, to see which works best. A young girl in rural Korea, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), is clearly the winner, but she has also bonded with her pig, Okja. When Okja is picked up and shipped off to the city, she follows, like a pint-sized action hero.
She meets a group of eco-terrorists called the Animal Liberation Front (members played by Paul Dano, Lily Collins, and others), who have a plan. Shirley Henderson and Giancarlo Esposito co-star, and Swinton has a dual role as her own twin sister, but Jake Gyllenhaal steals the show as an outlandish television host, in the looniest performance he has ever given.
John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) directs Operation Mincemeat (2022), a WWII story that’s too static and relies too much on dialogue and exposition, but the story itself is so bizarre and the movie is so well-acted that it’s well worth seeing.
In 1943, the Allied Forces are expected to invade Sicily. But the problem is that the Germans are expecting this and will surely be there to counter the attack. So, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) becomes part of a secret team whose job is to put together a ruse that will convince the Germans that the Allies actually plan intend to invade Greece. The ruse involves fake papers, a dead body, and any number of strange puzzle pieces that must be assembled to perfection, with time running out.
Oh, and another member of Ewan’s team is none other than young Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), who would go on to write a series of books about a secret agent named James Bond! Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, and Jason Isaacs also star.
The Other Side of the Wind
After making Citizen Kane at the age of 25, Orson Welles never had it so easy ever again. He made 12 more movies, and though they’re all great, they suffered increasingly smaller budgets, and more haphazard productions. He spent the final years of his life, until his death in 1985, trying to find money to finish his many unfinished projects. Chief among these was The Other Side of the Wind (2018), about a 70-year-old filmmaker (John Huston) trying to finish a film while surrounded by people who either admire him or betray him.
Extremely strange and arty, but incredibly inventive and mesmerizing, the movie was shot between 1970 and 1976 and was more or less completed—three sequences were even edited—but sections of the film were owned by different financiers and no one could agree on how to get it all together. Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who also appears in the film, spent decades fighting for it. Finally, the power of Netflix sealed the deal, and a miracle happened: a new Orson Welles film arrived. See also Morgan Neville’s essential accompanying documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.
A kind of horror-thriller with humorous elements and a playful structure, The Perfection (2019) is centered on two brilliant cellists, Charlotte (Allison Williams, from Get Out) and Lizzie (Logan Browning, from the Netflix series Dear White People). When the older Charlotte was forced to quit her training to look after her sick mother, the younger Lizzie became the new star. But after Charlotte’s mother dies, she returns to the fold, thus leading to a twisty symphony of passion and revenge, told through clever, time-twisting measures.
Steven Weber plays their teacher who has a room so acoustically perfect that only the most special students are invited there. Director Richard Shepard, a criminally underappreciated filmmaker, provides a brisk, smart, agile touch, moving easily between gripping suspense and bright comedy in a way that’s almost Hawksian.
Director Tamara Jenkins last gave us The Savages (2007) and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, but for some reason, didn’t or couldn’t make a follow-up until the equally excellent Private Life (2018), 11 years later. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play a middle-aged New York couple, Richard and Rachel, trying every conceivable method to have a baby, flitting back and forth between adoption centers and fertility treatments, until they come upon a plan.
Uneasy with the idea of an anonymous egg donor, their sort-of niece Sadie (Kayli Carter)—the child of Richard’s brother’s wife from a former marriage—begins to look like a good candidate. To their joy, Sadie agrees, but then the fallout starts. Jenkins is brilliant at juggling the unruly emotions of smart people, and somehow making their stories universal, funny, and heartbreaking. This is a wonderful film. John Carroll Lynch, Molly Shannon, and Denis O’Hare co-star.
The Power of the Dog
Oscar-winner Jane Campion (The Piano) returns with her first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star (she’d spent time working on the series Top of the Lake). The Western The Power of the Dog, based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, shows that Campion has lost none of her potency. She uses the landscape, and even the earth itself, to tell this primal, feral story. The Cain-and-Abel brothers are alpha-male Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who bathes only occasionally and uses his vast, drawling vocabulary and steely eyes to cut others down, and clean-cut, soft-spoken George (Jesse Plemons), whose carefully chosen words make him seem simple.
The two run a successful cattle empire, and while on a drive, Phil ridicules the thin, un-masculine young Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who waits on their table at an inn. George comforts the boy’s distraught mother, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and winds up marrying her. Back at the ranch, the power games ramp up, with subtle acts and wrenching moments, vanquishments tilting into defeats, with the twist of a rope.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) was the film of its year and is perhaps the best of the Netflix original films to date. It’s a beautiful, black-and-white meditation on the filmmaker’s childhood years in Mexico (in Spanish and Mixtec, with English subtitles). It focuses on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid for a well-to-do family, over the course of a year in the early 1970s. The family’s husband leaves for another woman, and the wife (Marina de Tavira) tries to hold it all together, while Cleo finds herself pregnant and her boyfriend gone.
With vast, and yet intricate, exquisite cinematography and sound design, Cuarón balances dark forebodings, moments of lightness and joy, and shocking tragedies, with a sense of true poetry. As with the director’s Oscar-winning Gravity, this is an astonishing visual and technical marvel, but also—like another of Cuarón’s stories of young women, A Little Princess—it’s delicate and affectionate. An ode to both cinema past and future, it reaches for levels achieved by Welles, Kubrick, and other masters—and gets there.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin’s long, complex re-telling of the trial following the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention is a surprisingly well-oiled machine. It moves slickly — and is even funny — as Sorkin’s trademark machine-gun dialogue punches cleanly through the details. Sorkin may have changed some facts here and there, but as a dramatic movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) still works like gangbusters.
The gist is that newly empowered Republicans want to make an example out of a group of peaceful, liberal protestors, and conjure up a huge trial based on ridiculous “crimes.” Sacha Baron Cohen steals the show as the headline-grabber Abbie Hoffman, but the entire cast is excellent, riding high on Sorkin’s screenplay and brisk direction (much sharper than in his directorial debut Molly’s Game). Frank Langella is especially strong as the sinister, malevolent Judge Julius Hoffman, while the treatment of Black Panther member Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is just as shocking as ever.
Jeffrey has been a working film critic for more than 14 years. He first fell in love with the movies at age six while watching "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and served as staff critic for the San Francisco Examiner from 2000 through 2003.