Driven to fill its slate with more original properties than borrowed, Netflix is producing increasingly more of its own movies. With such a high number in production, it is no surprise so many are met with lackluster reviews. In many ways, Netflix can be seen as the new home of TV movies. A place where unwanted and unloved pictures are snapped up from production or distribution limbo and given a second chance at a release. It is a platform where reviews matter less, and box office stats are non-existent. But while a surge in cheap and often poor films is happening, so too is a rise in great movies from acclaimed filmmakers.
The likes of Scorsese, Cuarón, Soderbergh, and the Coen brothers have all now made movies through the streaming giant. They secured the talent, and now they are reaping the rewards. This year alone, three of the five nominations in the best drama category at the Golden Globes are Netflix movies. With more and more filmmakers switching to streaming companies to make their projects, expect to see the rise in Netflix’s dominance come award seasons continue.
Disney may have ruled the box office in the 2010s, but it is Netflix that completely changed the game this decade. For better or worse, they have shown the future of cinema lies not just in theatres. You can argue the politics all you like, but it is becoming more and more impossible not to have a subscription when they are producing such unmissable movies.
Let’s look now at the greatest Netflix original movies from the last transformative 5 years.
10. Happy as Lazzaro (2018)
As well as producing films from their inception, ‘Netflix Originals’ also refers to the movies that Netflix bought the original distribution rights to. This means movies that screen at festivals can be purchased by Netflix and delivered right to your door. Streaming services are becoming a more prominent element of film festivals now, and for movie lovers who live outside of cities such as New York and LA, they are offering new and exciting access to international cinema.
Happy as Lazzaro is one such film acquired by Netflix. After winning the best screenplay award at Cannes in 2018, Netflix bought the rights to the quirky Italian drama. The film is set in an illegal sharecropping community, isolated from the rest of the world in Northern Italy. Among the impoverished population is Lazzaro, a young man with a heart of gold.
The film is small on plot, meandering its way through life along with its charming protagonist. But halfway through, an unexplainable event happens that gives us a very different experience. Happy as Lazzaro, despite being full of earthy realism, is also filled with small magical elements. The supernatural never takes away from the gritty impoverished world but adds a sense of charm and uniqueness to the story.
There is biting social commentary and bleak visions of class, but thanks to its otherworldly protagonist, Happy as Lazzaro elevates itself into being a charming modern-day fairy tale of sorts. It is a slow film that requires patience and an open mind but go with it, and you are treated to a uniquely enchanting experience.
9. Atlantics (2019)
Winner of the Grand Prix award at 2019’s Cannes, Atlantics is a somber yet beautiful love story. Set in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, the film lies under the shadow, both figuratively and literally, of a modern new mega tower. When the tower’s construction workers continue to have their wages held back, a group of the young men set sail on an illegal migrant ship for Spain. Among the men is Souleiman, who leaves behind Ada with whom he shared a deep love.
When tragedy strikes, the film does grieve but also finds new life amongst a brilliantly realized spiritual development. It is in this twist the film manages to elevate itself both in terms of ideas and presentation. What is ultimately a love story touches upon real-world issues and doesn’t hold back from their harsh realities. This is a film with a lot to say but does so in a manner that never feels forced.
The on-screen world feels intensely lived in and captured in great intimacy. There is a great depth of meaning to everything we see. The perfect example being the extended shots of the ocean that carry with them a great sense of beauty and horror. Atlantics will undoubtedly surprise you, and likely haunt you with its original and moving love story.
8. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Add Joel and Ethan Coen to the list of celebrated filmmakers who have produced their work through Netflix. The Academy award-winning brothers have long been associated with the Western genre. True Grit was a wonderful remaking of a classic, and No Country for Old Men was as good as a more modern take on the Western as you will see. And much of their other work shares settings, characters, and themes with the once golden genre. The desert, it seems, is a perfect landscape to host their off the wall characters and quirky storytelling.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is different from any of the Coen Brother previous films despite carrying their signature DNA. This is because of its anthology structure that splits the film into six short stories. Each feels very different in terms of plot and tone but feels a part of a larger Coen envisioned Western world.
Some of the stories are more memorable, and undoubtedly more cinematic than others. But on the whole, they each bring something unique to the table that only the Coens could. Whether it be in the tragic romance in ‘The Gal That Git Rattled,’ or the laugh out loud jokes in ‘Near Algodones,’ the eclectic cast, characters, and stories make this a brilliantly varied, and consistently entertaining experience.
7. The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
Orson Welles died in 1985, so it was understandably a real surprise when a new film directed by the Hollywood legend was released in 2018. Filmed over six years in the early 1970s, Welles’ final film failed to reach completion before he died in the mid-80s. Over the next few decades, there were several attempts to complete and release the project. But it wasn’t until 2018 that The Other Side of the Wind was finished. Edited together from nearly 100 hours of original footage, the now 2-hour film tells the story of the final day in a movie director’s life. Although Welles claims it is not autobiographical, the fictional director, played by John Huston, draws many parallels to Welles.
The movie plays like a fever dream, flipping between a Hollywood party and the film inside the film that the fictional director is screening. The party scenes are tough to keep up with as the cutting at times happens at a dizzying pace. The switches in camera quality, color, and lighting can be disorientating, and even frustrating. As a representation of the insane study and worship of both art and artists, the turbulent style feels on point. Meanwhile, the film within the film plays out like something else altogether. The highly explicit and abstract scenes aren’t particularly heavy on plot but are weighed down to the point of drowning in their style. The acid dipped bar sequence, and the following sex scene are real visual highlights.
The film is a challenging watch and one that, at times, feels frustratingly loose. But considering it was edited down from close to a hundred hours of 40-year old footage, it is a relatively controlled and remarkable achievement. There is so much to enjoy here in The Other Side of the Wind, and so much insight into Welles as both a filmmaker and a man. A truly brilliant and unexpected bonus chapter in the canon of one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.
6. The Little Prince (2015)
There are plenty of great animation movies made outside of Pixar, but by and large, the studio dominates the conversation when it comes to quality animation. So it is most certainly a compliment to say that you could easily mistake The Little Prince for a Pixar film. It works for both children and adults, is consistently inventive and hilarious, animated with clear love, and delivers a strong, meaningful message.
Based on the beloved 1943 children’s book, The Little Prince tells the story of a young girl about to begin life at a prestigious school. Over a summer, her eccentric elderly neighbor tells the girl the story of The Little Prince, the magical characters that inhabit his strange universe, and ultimately about the importance of childhood. The eclectic group of characters are all voiced by an incredibly stacked cast of major acting names. That includes the likes of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, and Benicio Del Toro.
Like the source material, the story is full of imagination and told with a real sense of childhood magic. It comes to life in a mixture of computer and stop-motion animation that separates the original story of The Little Prince and the new story it is framed within. The sequences are all crafted with endless charm and inventiveness. But what ultimately leaves this film lingering long after the credits roll is the beautiful tale it tells and its message about the importance of childhood.