Netflix wants Oscars, which means there’s a lot of good stuff coming soon to your living room. We’ve broken it down for you.
Netflix now has close to 125 million paying subscribers a month — just over 56 million domestically and 68 million internationally. The streaming behemoth has permanently changed viewing habits across the globe. But staying on top of the market it created won’t be a cakewalk. Competition looms.
Disney is expected to launch a new service with three video bundles next year, including content from recently acquired Fox, along with Marvel, Pixar, and ESPN, which it already owns. AT&T is also launching a direct-to-consumer streaming service in 2019 that will combine HBO, Warner Bros., and Turner assets. Apple, too, is reportedly soon to offer a comprehensive entertainment package to stream music, video, news, and give customers cloud storage.
Meanwhile, analysts estimate Netflix spent somewhere around $10 billion on TV and movies last year as part of its arms race with Amazon for original content.
In Hollywood, they’ve got a love-hate relationship with Netflix. With every new weekend box-office report comes mention of the fact that theaters are struggling more than ever as people are increasingly staying home to watch movies. But directors and showrunners love the big budgets and creative leeway Netflix allows, and for documentary and indie filmmakers, access to 125 million people is a much bigger audience than limited theatrical runs could ever provide. And with Netflix adding approximately two million new paying subscribers every month, the potential eyeballs will only grow. Still, Hollywood money can’t help but view Netflix as a threat, luring away A-list talent and keeping the movies they make out of the theaters.
Documentaries were the first category Netflix focused its buying on, seeing it as a relatively cheap investment and hoping to reap awards attention. The streaming giant has had seven Oscar-nominated feature-length documentaries in contention over the last four years, and finally won earlier this year for the Russian doping scandal doc Icarus. Also this year, Mudbound — a Depression-era family epic that Netflix bought after its 2017 Sundance screening — earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Supporting Actress for Mary J. Blige.
The crop of original Netflix movies being released in 2018, though, is already of a higher caliber than any year previous, and the company is making a full-court publicity push to make sure the right people notice come awards season. This isn’t without its fair share of controversy. At the Cannes Film Festival, in May, Netflix films were banned from the competition because the company wouldn’t give its movies a French theatrical release.
At least six of Netflix’s fall 2018 releases so far (which are being pegged as awards contenders) are getting some sort of big-screen release — a major departure from years past. Historically, theater owners don’t like Netflix’s approach on this front, believing that no one will pay to see a new Netflix movie in a theater when they can watch it at home with their streaming subscription. But that may change this fall.
Although it wasn’t able to compete for the Palm d’Or at Cannes, Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white Spanish film Roma won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is currently the frontrunner for Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards. A Spanish language black-and-white movie about a middle-class Mexican family in the 1970s isn’t necessarily the first thing you’d expect to win the big prize, but the critical buzz since its premiere has been grande. And the people who’ve seen it say it absolutely must be experienced in a theater.
I’ve already gotten word that Roma will be screened for members of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, just as Paul Greengrass’s Netflix movie 22 July was last month. And unlike 22 July and Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life — which each landed limited domestic theatrical releases, although not in Kansas City — I have every reason to believe that Roma will indeed screen in Kansas City theaters. All of this points to a big push from Netflix to garner awards attention and a rethinking of its theatrical release strategy. A theatrical release equals more publicity. And with forthcoming new releases from the Coen brothers, Orson Welles, and Martin Scorsese, Netflix was bound to take more chances.
What’s annoying about Netflix movies is how they are essentially dumped with little fanfare on the streaming platform, mixed in with everything else. It’s hard enough to tell what’s good and what’s crap when scrolling through your options, and even harder for a new, non-franchise movie because it’s not a known entity. With that in mind, consider this your heads-up for the rest of the year of the Netflix original movies you need to watch out for.
*Even this early in awards season, writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life has to be considered a frontrunner for a Best Original Screenplay nomination. By turns awkwardly hilarious and heartbreaking, this wonderful film is an acutely observed portrait of Rachel and Richard, a middle-aged married NYC couple (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) whose lives are stuck in neutral while everything they do revolves around trying to have a baby.
The movie is semi-autobiographical, and Jenkins’ script knowingly explores as many unbearable situations as possible, while her talented leads bring the perfect mix of lived-in familiarity and exasperation to their roles. Rachel and Richard are both writers in different stages of their careers, but lately everything has revolved around trips to the doctor and visits from adoption agencies. And that’s just the middle phase. They’ve been doing this awhile. When their aspiring writer step-niece Sadie — it’s complicated — comes to stay with them after leaving college, we see that Rachel and Richard are eager nurturers. Well, in some respects. Again, complicated. Newcomer Kayli Carter is also standout as Sadie, a young woman flush with the idealism and enthusiasm of a budding intellectual, talent be damned.
Private Life understands that the struggle for fertility can make monsters of anyone, and it doesn’t judge its characters. (Not even Sadie, who may actually have some writing talent after all.) It doesn’t let them off the hook either, and it avoids offering easy outs. In other words, it feels about as real as movies get. Jenkins shot the film in and around New York City, but it takes place mostly indoors, in claustrophobic waiting rooms and small apartments, so it could be said that this is the perfect type of film to be watched at home on Netflix. That’s how I saw it, but I feel a tinge of jealousy for those who experienced Private Life in a theater filled with uncomfortable laughter.
*Paul Greengrass is probably best known for the shaky-cam action-movie filming style he pioneered in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, but the British director also puts that approach to work making neo-realistic movies about real-life high-profile tragedies, such as Bloody Sunday, United 93, and Captain Phillips. His newest thriller, 22 July, finds Greengrass in that mode again as he re-enacts the 2011 Oslo terrorist attack, where a lone Norwegian gunman blew up a government building and opened fire at a youth summer camp, killing a total of 77 people. But about 40 gripping minutes into 22 July, the attack is over and there’s still 100 minutes to go. At which point Greengrass’s film slowly but sure-footedly begins to change gears.
Although it’s set in Norway and the cast is Norwegian, the language spoken throughout 22 July is English. That’s the second sign Greengrass doesn’t want to limit the audience for this story. The first? Releasing it on Netflix. And he’s right, because the movie has disturbing relevance to our own democracy. The storyline fractures into three narratives — that of a government caught completely off guard, a courageous young survivor forever adjusting to his new life, and the self-important homegrown white nationalist terrorist who takes advantage of the limelight and exploits a legal system that gives every concession (and all its attention) to the accused.
From a pacing standpoint, 22 July suffers a bit, especially after its horrific opening sequence ramps up the rage factor. If you are patient, however, the movie holds many rewards. I don’t want to suggest that viewing this film is akin to doing homework, but the cumulative experience is far greater than the “enjoyment” in the moment. It is an ensemble piece, to be sure, but as the story opens up, it reveals richer thematic ideas beyond the tried-and-true “courage in the face of adversity” thing. Anchored by powerful, honest performances by Anders Danielsen and Jonas Strand Gravli, who play two people at opposite ends of a rifle, 22 July is a powerful reminder that democracies are fragile and must be protected with scrutiny and resolve, not bullets.
*Hold The Dark is the latest drama from director Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room, Blue Ruin) to plumb the dark depths of humanity’s soul. Jeffrey Wright plays a retired novelist and animal researcher summoned to a depressed rural village in Alaska to find a child taken by wolves. Alexander Skarsgård is the child’s father, and all hell breaks loose when he returns from serving in Iraq. Like Saulnier’s other films, the story explodes with violence and goes in surprising directions, but it’s the isolated countryside and the cult-like regional folklore that drive people to embrace their inner wolf, making the setting the most important character.
*A who’s-who tale of music in the 20th century, Quincy is a documentary on the life and work of famed music producer Quincy Jones. It’s fascinating enough to hear inside stories of the artists Jones partnered with, but because the film was co-directed by his daughter Rashida Jones, it also contains intimate family footage. Not the best of the year by any means, but Oscar loves its music docs, so it may get a nom.
*Since the new horror thriller Apostle was directed by Gareth Evans (The Raid and its sequel), it was easy to guess that it would be brutal and gory in the freakiest — and sometimes most unnecessary — of ways. And it truly is. What’s surprising is how this turn-of-the-century period piece, starring Dan Stevens and Michael Sheen, goes all in on its religious fanaticism and cult worship plot and achieves something close to poignancy by its end. Not for the faint of heart, but unexpectedly rewarding.
*Sandi Tan won a directing award at Sundance for Shirkers, an autobiographical documentary that challenges the form. It follows its director across two continents and multiple media formats — including animation — as she reckons with a lost movie she made 20 years ago that’s been newly discovered.
*An absolute event for any serious film fan, November 2 is the day that Orson Welles’ unfinished mockumentary The Other Side of the Wind, starring John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich, debuts for the world to see. On Netflix. Yes, the auteur behind Citizen Kane — the most revered film of all time — has a new Netflix movie. Let that sink in. Filmed from 1970-76, Welles tinkered with editing until his death in 1985, and the full story of the project finally coming to completion last year is chronicled in a companion documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor). A night to stay in for sure.
*Hell or High Water rode its sleeper-hit status all the way to a Best Picture nomination in 2017, and now its director (David Mackenzie) and star (Chris Pine) reteam to tell the bloody medieval story of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, who fought for Scottish independence in the 14th century. Outlaw King debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and comes to Netflix November 9.
*Joel and Ethan Coen have always been pranksters. It was widely known that Netflix had hired the writer-directors to helm an original western anthology series, but when the trailer debuted, they issued a statement along with it: Surprise! The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a feature-length film. Starring Tim Blake Nelson and Liam Neeson, among others, it’s made up of six chapters that may or may not be somehow related. Who cares what it is? It’s new Coens and it premieres November 16 on Netflix and in select theaters. Keep an eye out in KC.
*In terms of early unanimous critical acclaim and auteur credibility, the crown jewel of Netflix’s awards season is Roma. Alfonso Cuarón already has an Oscar for directing Gravity, and although this story is more grounded than his space-set masterpiece, the word is out that this family drama is also pure cinema with plenty of emotion. It drops on Netflix December 14, but has an extremely high chance of being in theaters that day in Kansas City as well.
*Bird Box, a post-apocalyptic drama directed by Susanne Bier (the Oscar-winning In A Better World) and starring Sandra Bullock, is still a big mystery. No one’s seen it yet, so there’s no buzz, which could also be a bad thing. Regardless, it has its premiere at AFI Fest on November 12 and will be available on Netflix December 21, just in time to tempt filmgoers to stay home on the busy pre-Christmas weekend.
*Lastly, a heads up on two foreign titles of note that don’t yet have Netflix release dates: Happy as Lazzaro is an Italian drama, written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, that won Best Screenplay at Cannes (before Netflix purchased it — sneaky!). Girl is a Belgian drama directed by Lukas Dhont. It’s about a 15-year-old transgender ballerina, and it won Best First Feature at Cannes, as well as being submitted as the Belgian entry into the 2019 Foreign Language Film Oscar race.