(Note: this article was originally published here.)
From a movie perspective, Netflix’s list of November releases unfortunately doesn’t have much to offer. (Chappie? The Reader? Really?) If you’re in need of binge-watching material for the upcoming holiday season, however, the good news is that there are plenty of other movies you can watch on DVD instead. Here’s a quick rundown:
Michael Clayton (2007)
Like most of the films that any one of John, Dan, and Tony Gilroy have worked on (see Nightcrawler and the Bourne franchise), 2007’s Oscar-winning Michael Clayton (written/directed by Tony, edited by John) is a fast-paced, morally bleak thriller. Its titular character (George Clooney), a divorced gambler who works as a fixer at a law firm, finds himself tasked with covering up a colleague’s (Tom Wilkinson) nervous breakdown – only to then stumble across evidence that their firm is resorting to illegal tactics on an important lawsuit. The overall film traffics in fairly familiar ideas about corporate corruption. But if you’re looking for an escape, Tony’s script has all the sharp, incisive dialogue you could possibly want. And the movie features excellent turns from Clooney, Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton, whose character perfectly encapsulates why everyone hates lawyers.
As with last month’s list, each of these DVDs is related to an upcoming theatrical release.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives recounts the struggles of three World War II soldiers who’ve just returned from the front. Fred (Dana Andrews) has to deal with a wife (Virginia Mayo) who only loves him for his money; Al (Frederic March) needs to reacquaint himself with his family (Myrna Loy, Theresa Wright); and Homer (Harold Russell) must cope with the fact that he no longer has hands. 70 years on, parts of this movie have certainly turned mushy, particularly the soundtrack and ending. But for the most part, the commentary Lives provides on consumerism and the American Dream still resonates – thanks in no small part to the exceptional deep-focus camerawork of Citizen Kane’s Gregg Toland. And March, Russell, and Andrews’ lead performances continue to supply poignant testaments to many veterans’ worst fear: returning to a country that neither understands nor cares about what they went through.
See it for: In Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater depicts the 30-year reunion of three Vietnam War veterans. It’ll be in theaters on November 3.
Blood Simple (1985)
Back in 1985, the Coen brothers made their first foray into filmmaking with Blood Simple, a movie that remains one of their most unjustly neglected works. The bare-bones version of Blood’s plot – a bar owner (John Getz) hires a hitman (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill the former’s wife (Frances McDormand), only to have the tables turn when said hitman decides to kill him instead – has all the trappings of a noir-esque thriller. But in the end, it’s really just a vehicle for what the Coens do best: gently bending genre norms with playful dialogue, hilariously self-absorbed characters, and clashing mixtures of suspense and comedy. Whatever deficiencies the movie consequently acquires on an emotional level are easily offset by McDormand, who takes a first step towards creating the cheery-yet-dogged persona she’d eventually win an Oscar for in Fargo.
See it for: In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand plays a woman who protests against her local police force. The movie arrives in theaters on November 10.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Like virtually all his better-known works, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes shows few signs of aging even decades after its release. The story of Iris (Margaret Lockwood), a young woman who discovers that her traveling companion (May Whitty) has disappeared midway through their train ride, contains all the familiar hallmarks of a Hitchcock film: the melding of illusion and reality, an unabashed willingness to play with viewer expectations, and tons of inopportune coincidences to spare. But in characters like the duo of Caldicott and Charters, Hitchcock also reveals an unexpected, remarkable knack for anti-bourgeois satire. Even if Lady eventually falls short of perfection – its anti-Nazi plot elements feel somewhat contrived, and it’s nowhere nearly as haunting as Vertigo or Rear Window – it remains an excellent thriller, one that easily beats much of what passes for “gripping” among today’s commercial releases.
See it for: Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is also a thriller set on a train. The Agatha Christie adaptation will be released on November 10.
(NOTE: This is also available on Netflix.)
Before Barry Jenkins wowed the moviegoing world with Moonlight, a poetic examination of race and sexuality, Dee Rees tackled similar themes with comparable poise in 2011’s Pariah, a coming-of-age story about a lesbian, African-American teenager named Alike (Adepero Oduye). Rees’ contribution to queer cinema admittedly isn’t flawless: its dialogue occasionally feels scripted, and there’s nothing to match the visual and thematic poignancy of the best moments in Moonlight. Yet thanks to Oduye, Kim Wayans, and Charles Parnell’s outstanding performances, the film still offers a meaningful look at the way traditional African-American culture refuses to even acknowledge the notion of gender fluidity. And Bradford Young’s colorful lighting expertly captures Alike’s seemingly self-contradictory desire to be seen as both mainstream and unique. All told, this is a film that performs a remarkable balancing act: it manages to provide uplift without ever glossing over the very real challenges of coming out.
See it for: Rees’ latest film, Mudbound, was a hit at Sundance. Netflix will be releasing it in theaters and online on November 17.
Beau Travail (1999)
If you hated reading Herman Melville’s Billy Budd back in high school, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail will come as a welcome breath of fresh air. She transplants Melville’s tale of a handsome sailor’s death to a French military base in desert-scorched Djibouti – and in doing so, she transforms Melville’s quasi-Biblical allegory into a riveting, unabashedly sensual examination of sexuality and moribund imperialism. The overall film’s illustration of a fundamental paradox of erotic desire – nothing is more wonderful, but in modern society, nothing is harder to satisfy – remains haunting and justly influential. In Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), moreover, Denis also creates a fascinating portrait of a man unwilling to let go of stereotypical notions of masculinity. And if nothing else, you’ll be mesmerized by the movie’s style, which grounds the story’s hallucinatory bursts of physical ecstasy in an impressively immersive atmosphere of hazy, hypnosis-inducing weariness.
See it for: Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name has been getting Oscar buzz for its luscious portrayal of budding male sexuality. The Sundance favorite will be coming to theaters on November 24.