(Note: This article was originally published at the following link.)
Netflix unveiled its list of acquisitions for this coming September about a week ago. In terms of movies, it’s full of obvious goodies like Pulp Fiction, Jaws, Angelina Jolie’s latest directorial effort, and several nostalgia-inducing Disney movies from the 90s. But there are other cool things on it as well. Here’s a look at a few releases that ought to be getting more hype; note that they’re listed from newest to oldest.
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu first came to fame in 2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a searing, unforgettable portrait of two women’s attempts to arrange a black-market abortion in Communist Romania. In Mungiu’s latest movie, Graduation, he moves into post-Ceaucescu territory to recount one father’s (Adrian Titieni) desperate attempts to ensure his daughter (Maria-Victoria Dragus) can go to college in England – a story that also does double duty as an indictment of the inequalities that continue to beset the European Union. Graduation doesn’t work quite as well as 4 Months; it meanders in several places, and its visuals lack the simple, elegant austerity that made 4 Months so chilling. Yet thanks to Titieni’s compelling acting and Mungiu’s refusal to see his characters as all-good or all-evil, Graduation otherwise proves to be an extremely engrossing and thought-provoking watch. Moreover, in its depiction of helicopter parenting as little more than a means of assuaging a parent’s personal insecurities, the movie hits an uncomfortable truth that all fans of Amy Chua ought to take to heart.
Back in 2002, Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven expertly depicted the difficulties a traditional family man faced when coming to terms with his sexuality in 1950s America. In Carol, Haynes goes one step further: the characters are still gay, but whether or not that’s acceptable proves to be the last thing on their minds. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara respectively play a middle-aged housewife and a young photographer who find themselves slowly, inexorably falling in love with each other, even as the men in their lives cry foul. Nothing in Carol carries the subversive irony of the way Heaven used a classical filmmaking style to treat decidedly contemporary subject matter. But Mara and Blanchett’s performances are master classes in subtlety, Edward Lachman’s cinematography skillfully evokes the elegant yet inhibitory atmosphere of the 50s – and the conclusion provides one of the most fulfilling endings to an LGBT-themed movie you’ll ever see.
Back when he was little more than a tabloid fixture, Ben Affleck decided to get started in directing with 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, a mystery that centers on two private detectives’ (Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan) attempts to find and rescue a kidnapped six-year old. The movie’s flaws are legion: Casey just isn’t cut out for any role that requires a lot of talking, Monaghan’s character is little more than a good-looking prop, Ben’s portrayal of working-class Boston feels Hollywoodized, and the story’s attempted critiques of the media and the American conception of community don’t break much new ground. Still, the movie’s plot twists definitely catch you off guard; the ending takes a while to come around, but when it does, it hits you with the kind of message that would’ve been right at home in a 40s film noir. And in any case, the fact that Morgan Freeman plays someone who isn’t an all-knowing good guy – and does so fairly well – is enough on its own to make Gone worth a watch.
Noah Baumbach’s latest movie, The Meyerowitz Stories, will be released on Netflix this coming October. Before then, it’s worth checking out The Squid and the Whale, an earlier work of his that deals with two kids’ (Owen Kline, Jesse Eisenberg) attempts to deal with their parents’ (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney) divorce in 1980s Brooklyn. Intrafamilial conflict has always been ripe fodder for unwanted melodrama, and the fact that Squid was shot with a handheld camera might make you think you’re in for something serious and “realistic.” Yet in Baumbach’s hands, Squid’s supposedly grim subject matter actually proves to be a painfully hilarious means of exploring just how far people are willing to go to protect their egos. Daniels in particular is perfect as a failing writer who criticizes his wife’s infidelities but happily has sex with his students, while Eisenberg is also exceptional as the son who subconsciously absorbs the jerkish qualities of the father. Together, the two of them make Squid that rare movie that can empathize with teen angst without getting bogged down in self-absorption.
When it was first released, Darren Aronofsky’s portrait of four junkies in Requiem for a Dream was controversial enough to warrant an NC-17 rating. Since then, parts of the film have aged; in particular, Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar-nominated performance now feels a tad melodramatic. Yet in light of the opioid epidemic currently ravaging the US, Requiem’s examination of the economic and emotional conditions that can drive people to drugs only feels more cutting and relevant. Moreover, no matter how many cool music videos you’ve seen, the movie’s famous hip-hop editing style still feels fresh, while the wide variety of subjective camera techniques Aronofsky uses to depict his characters’ mental states easily makes Requiem more daring and disturbing than anything he’s made since. For those repulsed by the somewhat nihilistic tendencies of Fight Club – a better-known turn-of-the-century movie that also deals with drugs and plays with editing – Requiem is powerful proof that transgressive cinema need not be uncompassionate.
Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu first achieved international recognition thanks to the strength of this debut feature, which chronicles the stories of three ordinary people (Gael García Bernal, Goya Toledo, and Emilio Echevarría) who are all involved in the same car accident. In this reviewer’s opinion, it’s still the best movie Iñárritu has ever made. Unlike 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful, Amores isn’t heavy-handed or repetitive. Unlike Birdman, it also has enough visceral action to avoid wandering into the realm of navel gazing. And unlike The Revenant, it doesn’t subscribe to the notion that more pain equals more profundity. Fans of Pulp Fiction often look askance at Amores because it “copies” the former’s preoccupations with plot structure and the idea of redemption. But whereas Pulp approaches these topics from a more intellectual, reference-laden standpoint, Amores is far grittier, and it’s more interested in telling a story you can relate to emotionally. Call that old-fashioned if you want – but in Iñárritu’s hands, it works quite well.
- The Redeeming Power of Acting – a.k.a. Gangs of New York and Dead Poets Society. (2002, 1989; both out September 1)
Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society are both fairly well-known movies that also have serious flaws. Gangs can never figure out whether it wants to be a grand historical epic or an intimate tale of revenge. And Dead Poets Society features a character dichotomy – you’re either a narrow-minded old dude with zero individuality or a pot-smoking bum full of “passion” and “life” – that does little more than romanticize laziness. Yet both movies have the fortune of being redeemed by exceptional acting. In Gangs, Daniel Day-Lewis’ vicious, ruthless interpretation of Bill the Butcher is one of the best performances he’s ever given. And in DPS, Robin Williams plays the kind of teacher you wish you could have had yourself. Williams is gone, and Day-Lewis is hanging up his hat – but in these two movies, we fortunately have a record of the remarkable things each of them did in his prime.