5. Okja (2017)
This film about a super pig had a passionate message about the environment, corporations, and meat consumption. But it was still a ton of fun. Bong Joon Ho’s action-adventure had it all and made for a supremely entertaining experience. Despite its A-list filled cast, Okja was always going to be a quirky and challenging sell. That is why it was perfect for Netflix; a haven of creativity kept safe from box office pressures.
Okja tells the story of a super pig, manufactured by a huge corporation and raised by a sweet caretaker Mija, in the mountains of Korea. But when Okja is fully grown, the corporation takes the pig back. Mija, as well as a guerilla activist group, tries to save Okja from being the next best meat on supermarket shelves.
Bong Joon Ho is a master of balancing genres. In 2019, Parasite showed the Korean filmmaker balance drama, comedy, action, and horror all in one supremely unpredictable package. Okja, while perhaps covering fewer genres, achieved a similar variety in tone. There are very dark and challenging scenes showing animal torture at a slaughterhouse. Then some scenes involve the hilariously over the top eccentric characters of Tilda Swinton’s big-time CEO and Jake Gyllenhaal’s absurd zoologist.
Okja offers big laughs, exciting action set pieces, and thought-provoking messages. This is all achieved without ever sacrificing any sense of balance or entertainment value. From start to finish, Okja proves to be a wild and unique ride.
4. Mudbound (2017)
Netflix is filled with easy, fun watches. But the streaming service showed it wasn’t just interested in generating endless Adam Sandler movies when it signed on to produce Mudbound. The story of two farming families in post-WWII Mississippi is anything but an easy watch. Mudbound is an unflinching look at a dark and disturbing time in America’s history.
The ensemble cast of Mudbound is impressive across the board, delivering brave performances throughout. There are moments of hope, the relationship between returning soldiers Jamie and Ronsel especially. But ultimately, the aggressive racism turns the story into a brutal tragedy for the most part. The torture scene conducted by the KKK is especially hard to get through. And it is a hard film to move on from. The oppressive society, land and weather all cling to you throughout. Even the mud feels like a character that you just can’t wash off.
The issues explored in Mudbound, such as societal racism and combat trauma, are very much still relevant. And the world is so expertly realized, and characters so fleshed out by director Dee Rees, that the historical setting never allows the films brutality a comforting sense of distance. As hard a watch as Mudbound is, this is a film you simply have to see for its challenging story and unforgettable performances.
3. Marriage Story (2019)
Noah Baumbach has had a fantastic decade. He has released a total of seven films, amongst them critical gems such as Frances Ha and The Meyerowitz Stories (another brilliant Netflix original). With Marriage Story, the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker finished off the 2010s by making his best movie to date.
Inspired by his personal experiences, Marriage Story tells the story of a failing marriage as it moves through the divorce procedures. Despite being a heavy and sad subject, the film still manages to find warmth and great comedy in its small everyday moments. Certain scenes play out like perfect little shorts, and there are small individual moments, such as a gate closing, that themselves carry an incredible awareness of the craft.
Of course, being a divorce story, there is also heavy, heartfelt drama. Throughout it all, every bit of emotion is perfectly played out by two career-best turns from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. They laugh, cry, scream, and fight, and we believe every second of it. One argument between the two is especially impressive, and will no doubt be seen during many award shows’ highlight reels. Throw in two fantastic supporting performances from Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as their lawyers, and Marriage Story has one of the best ensemble casts of 2019.
Marriage Story works as well as it does because it feels so balanced and honest. It is easy to pick sides in any fight, but here we have two rounded and expertly written characters, each with their flaws and strengths. Their arguments feel relatable and understandable, even when considered from both sides of the fight. It’s a lot easier to make a more one-sided divorce film such as Kramer vs. Kramer. It is hard to craft two characters in conflict with an equal amount of love and understanding. But Baumbach does it, and in the process further solidifies Netflix as an awards season powerhouse.
2. The Irishman (2019)
While many of the great filmmakers are blasting Netflix and the streaming world of today, others are embracing it. Still, it was a huge shock to hear that Martin Scorsese himself would be releasing his next film on the original streaming platform. What was perhaps more shocking, was that his move to Netflix was initiated by the fact no other studios wanted to take the risk on his gangster passion project. Remarkably, one of the greatest filmmakers in history could not get funding for a film, not even when it boasted a cast of DeNiro and Pacino, two of the greatest screen actors to ever live. All that talent, and still, it wouldn’t be seen in regular theatres.
After many headlines and online pieces discussing the three and a half hour runtime and the digital de-aging of DeNiro, the film was finally screened. The praise was universal, Scorsese had delivered. Philosophical, gripping, and certainly epic, the mob drama proved the release format meant nothing in the greater scheme of things. The Irishman is now heading towards awards season as one the major frontrunners.
With a cast that features just about everyone who ever stepped foot in a crime film or TV show, The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran and his involvement with organized crime. Despite its length, the film never drags and keeps you hooked over decades of on-screen drama. The digital de-aging can be distracting at times, but ultimately this is a near-flawless movie from one of the greatest ever to do it.
It may not be as consistently entertaining as some of his older movies, or quite frankly as impressive. But The Irishman feels like the perfect movie for Scorsese to make now at this point in his career. It looks back at the genre and the legendary filmmaker’s canon with the right amount of heart and the right amount of questions. It is both admiring and criticizing every aspect of the mob story and its world of characters. It pays a great deal of homage and yet brings something new to the table. Essentially, The Irishman is the perfect swansong for Scorsese and the gangster genre.
1. Roma (2018)
If there is a single moment, a particular film, that can be identified as a turning point in the life of Netflix, it is Roma. This was the film that made Netflix a serious awards contender and solidified its state as a home of prestigious filmmaking talent. There were other great films before it, and indeed have been plenty more since it, but none so far have been met with such praise and universal love as Roma.
Nominated for 10 Oscars and winner of 3, Roma was such a sensation it forced a largely anti-streaming Hollywood to rethink their views on the format. To many, Green Book’s Best Picture Win was a clear sign Hollywood was not ready to fully embrace the streaming future. But Roma’s quality and subsequent effect on public and critical mindsets will no doubt be in part responsible for when a Netflix movie is inevitably crowned Best Picture.
But it isn’t what the film accomplished that makes it the best Netflix movie to date. It is because of what the film is. Alfonso Cuarón’s personal story of a maid and the middle-class family she works for is an absolute masterpiece. Every room, character, and shot is filled with loving detail. Every inch of the screen, be it in the background or foreground, feels entirely lived in.
The visuals alone stand out as being amongst the most striking in all of modern cinema. The signature Cuarón long takes, the perfect balance of light, and the masterful framing make this film a true work of art. Every scene contains at least one image that is worthy of the highest gallery. The opening credits themselves, which show no more than a tiled floor being mopped, provide more beauty than most films manage in their entire runtime.
But Roma is more than its looks. It is the incredible first-time performance from its lead. Its masterfully orchestrated scenes of the intimate and epic. Its accurate portrayal of a specific time and place. Its unforgettable story of love and family. Roma is everything cinema aims to be, regardless of whether it is seen on a TV or theatre screen.