Have you checked Netflix Instant lately? Each year, it seems that — while the choices of which television series to marathon increase — the number of quality film choices has tumbled. There are no longer that many premium movies available on Netflix Instant. In fact, most of the choices look like the dregs of Redbox. When a new movie finally arrives, I’ve noticed that the people I interact with in real life — who watch most of their movies on Netflix — all seem to have stumbled across the same movie at the same time (for instance, Take This Waltz must have been seen by 45 percent of all Netflix Instant subscribers).
There’s still good stuff there; it’s just harder to find. Many of the better movies never received wide releases, never had huge marketing campaigns, and were never spoken of that much outside of film festivals. So, as I do annually (although, it’s getting more difficult), I pored through their offerings from the last two years or so and dug up 20 “pretty good” to great offerings that may have flown under your radar (although, a few wouldn’t have if you’re a regular reader of Pajiba). So instead of striking out on your own and ending up watching Hansel and Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft, you have a proper starting point in culling all that’s good on Netflix Instant.
(Hyperlinks open to full reviews)
Jeff Who Lives at Home — Low-key and sweet, there’s a quiet poignancy to Jeff, Who Lives at Home that takes an extra beat to flower, but at a short 83-minutes, the film manages to be modest and emotionally satisfying, if not somewhat meandering. The meandering, however, almost seems by design, as though to illustrate the random, illogical and seemingly insignificant nature of the very twists and turns that lead to the climactic events in our lives. The movie doesn’t exactly beat you over the head with substance, but the simple theme resounds. — Dustin Rowles
Butter — Jennifer Garner’s competition satire, Butter, is reminiscent of Alexander Payne’s Election by way of the Michael Patrick Jann’s under-appreciated pageant satire Drop Dead Gorgeous (“The Swan Ate My Baby!”). Like those two films, it’s focused on mid-westerners putting up a pretense of polite folksiness, but behind the scenes, revealing themselves to be cut-throat, political, and sexually-driven characters who will stop at nothing to succeed. Butter is not a hugely successful satire, but it is consistently amusing and frequently clever. — Dustin Rowles
Like Crazy — There’s quite a bit of heartbreak in Like Crazy. While it has moments of levity, and even a few laugh-out-loud moments, it’s ultimately a sad film. Not necessarily in a bawling your eyes out kind of way, but in the same way that these long-distance relationships are often buried under their own sadness. While the movie has a good, nuanced ending which is not really any of the endings you would expect going in, it’s not a perfect film. Mainstream audiences will probably hate this movie, because it trades the bright-lights of Going the Distance for the harsh fluorescent realities of the situation. But the sad truth is that good relationships don’t always work out for the best. — Seth Freilich
Bellflower — Stylistically, Bellflower hits a lot of right notes, and there is real gold to be mined from it. Yet ultimately the film simply shoots too far, overreaching its goals and becoming a muddled mess. It’s not that it’s bad — it’s actually quite good. But its ending is such a far cry from its beginning, and it falters mainly because the steps in-between don’t match those radical tonal changes. If it seems that I’m being deliberately obtuse about it, that’s not accidental. Bellflower needs to be seen in all of its lurid, twisted glory to fully understand my take on it. — TK
Sleepwalk with Me — At the center of it all is this oddly endearing performance from Birbiglia who, like Louis CK and Woody Allen before him, manages to show you his worst side and somehow hold on to your sympathy. Matt Pandamiglio is an infuriating man-child. Someone who won’t take care of himself, can’t be honest with his partner and refuses to confront the way in which this self-neglect is extremely destructive. But there’s something in Birbiglia’s slightly doughy face and, more importantly, the benefit of his own hindsight that consistently wins us over. And for all the heavy themes and wounded characters, Sleepwalk With Me is, at its core, pretty f*cking hilarious. Especially if you’ve never heard the jackal story before. — Joanna Robinson
The Do-Deca Pentathalon — “The Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay, understand relationships, and are mining indie gold with ruminations on mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and kids. The Do-Deca-Pentathlon continues the trend of thirty-somethings living in suspended funimation, but with spectacular fireworks. It so perfectly captures the dynamic between two insanely competitive brothers, with all the love and hatred that sharing an old wombpartment can engender.” — Brian Prisco
Bernie — Bernie feels more like a Christopher Guest film than a Richard Linklater, and I mean that as an utmost compliment. It reminds me so much of Waiting for Guffman, a cacophony of amazing supporting small town performers surrounding the three leads who simply kill it. Based on a true story, Bernie is about a fussy little mortician in a small Texas town who befriends the town harridan. He accidentally kills her, and then attempts to hide the body while tending to her finances. It’s actually kind of an old story - wealthy widow wooed and wasted by younger man - and in other hands it would be more comedy of errors than comedy of manners. Linklater knows small-town Texas, and so he creates an extremely competent fictionalized true crime documentary, something you’d see on Unsolved Mysteries or America’s Most Wanted. It’s brutally funny and very sad, and it feels honest. For people sick of the rig-a-dig-doo manic-bulldog Jack Black or the alright-alright surf-slack McConaughey, you will be pleasantly surprised with their performances. Bernie is yet further proof that Richard Linklater is willing to take wild chances and take adventurous paths with his films. — Brian Prisco
The Myth of the American Sleepover — There have been a lot of great coming of age movies over the years, but Myth more than any other recaptures that adrenalized high you got from sneaking out in the middle of the night in high school, not to do anything dastardly, but to experience what the world is like when the adults are asleep, to steal a kiss, to form a connection with those who barely gave you notice during the day. It’s the middle of the night, the world is upside down, and there’s an epiphany at every corner. The Myth of the American Sleepover resurrects it all for an hour and a half before you wake up and realize you have a job and a kid and a mortgage and you’ll never again be able to experience the magic of brushing hands with a pretty girl you’ve never met. It’s all downhill from there, folks. But at least, The Myth of the American Sleepover reminds you that you’re still capable of feeling a tingling but diluted version of that. It’s an outstanding movie, and it will bust your heart open. — Dustin Rowles
Take This Waltz — Though it meanders, taking its sweet time to fully capture Margot’s relationship with Lou, and then Daniel, Take This Waltz is a powerfully evocative film. I’d be hard-pressed to call it entertaining or even funny (though, there are small doses of strange humor built around Margot and Lou’s affectionate insults), but Take This Waltz is a brilliant mood film. The performances from Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby are, as you’d expect, outstanding, and even Rogen manages to pull off a strong dramatic performance (until he’s called upon to cry, which is where he comes up short). There is a narrative, but the film doesn’t set out to tell a story as much as it attempts to conjure certain feelings, to make you ache, and most likely, remind you of your own history of failed relationships. In that regard, it’s a wistful, melancholy success, another outstanding effort from Sarah Polley. — Dustin Rowles
The Company Men — Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, and Chris Cooper star in The Company Men, a suitable sister movie to Jaston Reitman’s Up in the Air, focusing on the other side of that equation: The white collar, upper middle-class employees who have lived comfortable lives for year and for the first time in their lives face the indignity of unemployment, the struggles of maintaing a family, and having to start all over again so late in their life in a corporate world that, to some degree, has passed them by. It’s not a film that will suit everyone (in fact, Prisco hated it), but I thought it was a strong film about men facing a decision between giving up and starting all over. — Dustin Rowles
Trust — Trust is the crushing tale of a freshman girl who gets stalked and sexually violated by an online predator. It plays out like a painstakingly well-crafted Lifetime movie or an afterschool special, but that’s more to the layout of the plot rather than the acting and style of the production. Because it is painstakingly well-crafted and soul-crushing to watch. Schwimmer, working from a script by In The Bedroom scribe Robert Festinger, and Andy Bellin, creates what amounts to a stylistically interesting and heartrending cautionary example of the potential dangers of living in the digital age. While it’s plotted a bit like the online date rape version of the drivers’-ed “Blood on the Asphalt” video, the actors are all fantastic and Schwimmer manages to come at the story from enough intriguing and terrifying angles to make the film quality. — Brian Prisco
The Freebie: The Freebie seems like a bad idea from the start — two young hipster marrieds, together some seven plus years, decide that it’s only logical that a couple as enlightened as they can go out and have one night stands and be none the worse for wear. Yet, writer/director/star Katie Aselton succeeds because she hates these stupid bastards just as much as we do. The Freebie is honest and smart and ugly, riding on the outstanding chemistry between Aselton and her co-star Dax Shepard, whose performance might have very well been the degree of difficulty that propelled this into the gold medal category. The Freebie rings painfully true, but eschews any of the slapstick or staged fights that would cripple this as a studio film. What makes the flick so endearing is that, as in real life, Aselton avoids going for the simple solutions. It’s a textbook example of what every indie romance should be — ugly, beautiful, and sincere.” - Brian Prisco
Goon — Goon, written by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg and directed by Michael Dowse, is the unholy bastard child of Rocky and Slap Shot, with the dynamite mechanics of Major League thrown in for good measure. It’s not so much a movie about hockey as about my favorite part of hockey, the enforcer. It’s hilarious and violent, a sweet love story punched in the face with a knuckle dragging sports blowout, with profanity fountaining out like a shook-up soda can. From the opening shots of blood splattering ice as a tooth slowly tumbles to the rink, asskicking abounds, and from opening buzzer to final bloody dukeout, Goon pummels you with gleeful abandon and you’re left dazed and smiling. Albeit short a few choppers. — Brian Prisco
A Bag of Hammers — A Bag Of Hammers presents an odd conundrum. It’s one of those films that I liked overall, but it’s glaring dichotomies never quite gelled, creating a rift through the film’s core that was difficult to reconcile. It’s whimsy is a bit too whimsical given its eventual emotional downturn. The third act feels rushed and the ending(s) are a little tiresome after a while. And yet… it’s so affecting, and its cast is so engaging, that I couldn’t help but find myself won over by it. — TK
I Saw the Devil — In Kim Ji-Woon’s I Saw The Devil, revenge isn’t just a dish best served cold. It’s served cold, reheated in the microwave, picked at, reheated again, then thrown in the garbage and fed to dogs. It’s an unbelievably brutal revenge flick. A secret service agent’s wife-to-be is murdered by a serial killer, and the agent goes fucking insane. He tracks down the suspect, figures out who it is, and then inserts a tracking device into his stomach. And then he proceeds to hunt the maniac down every time he considers satiating his maniac lust and brutally beats and wounds him. It’s a “look long into the abyss” film, where the hero becomes the monster and the result is two remarkable performances by the leads Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi. The violence is unsettling and gruesome, justifiable only barely because the villain is such a fucking monster we want to see him punished. This is not a film for the squeamish, and there will be some who want to flout this as “torture-porn,” if only because the torturer — and it’s torture, make no qualms about that — takes so much pleasure in spidering his fly, but that would to deny the outstanding final project. I fear for the inevitable American remake. — Brian Prisco
Turkey Bowl (Straight to Netflix) — Beyond being funny, the movie has an underlying familiarity and resonance. Not just in terms of the football game itself, but in terms of this idea of watching your post-college “grown up” friendships evolve. That evolution can go many ways, and most of us have probably seen endless variations of this, from those who drop off the face of the Earth after assimilating into whatever new life they’ve developed, to others who have grown some mix of anger, resentment and sadness over other friends leaving them behind, to those who adapt with the situations and work to keep their friendships going, learning to appreciate that great friends can pick up where they left off no matter how much time is in the gaps. Turkey Bowl doesn’t touch upon each of these, but all of this is underlying what the characters are dealing with and, even if the circumstances of this particular circle of friends don’t match your own in fact, they almost surely do in tone. — Seth Freilich
God Bless America — There’s so much to love about God Bless America, even with the necessary low-budget appearance. And no sh*t, because with the dark subject matter, no studio’s touching this film with a ten-foot pole. It’s insanely satisfying to watch them drive over a bunch of people waving God Hates F*gs posters, white trash rednecks getting gunshots in the back as they sprawl. It’s even more satisfying to watch the two heroes turn guns on a bunch of rude moviegoers. How their killing spree is being documented by the media is just one of the many sterling touches Goldthwait brings. The problem is just that when you’re ranting about everything you hate, you’re going to overlap with stuff that people like. No one’s going to cry when you cram a homophobe into your wheelwell. But Fall Out Boy? Because Alice Cooper’s awesome? And how many sixteen year olds really are that devoted to Alice Cooper? Instead, it feels like the masturbatory fantasy of a fortysomething, which means the entire film is in Frank’s head, and makes it a masterpiece on par with even the lowliest Charlie Kaufman. Which means that anyone who gets joy out of the murder of the idiots in the film and mocks their deaths makes them culpable to the very culture that the murderers are trying to eliminate. It’s the only sour note in an otherwise ballsy and purely enjoyable film. — Brian Prisco
Fly Away — I hate saying that there’s a “special child” genre, but if there is one, then Fly Away is one of the better entries. It’s emotionally affecting but not manipulative, eye-opening and demonstrative without being exploitative, funny at times without relying on quirk, sweet but not cloying. Roderick and Rickards, two unlikely indie drama stars, carry the film evenly and honestly, and Grillo’s relaxed, unpretentious direction anchors it and makes it feel real. It’s a wonderful, occasionally devastating film that reveals some of the harsh, yet strangely lovely truths about parents and children.
Lockout — Lockout has only the barest sense of a coherent plot. It’s haphazard and silly, and there are quite a few plot threads that simply never get resolved, Very Important Discoveries that clearly aren’t that damn important since they’re mentioned once and then forgotten. It’s ten pounds of dumb in a wet five pound bag, practically bursting at the seams with stupid. But here’s the thing — Lockout? Kind of a shitload of fun. Oh, you’re not going to like yourself afterwards, but damn if it doesn’t manage to engage and entertain every now and then. We’re left with a B-movie in the truest sense of its modern definition. It’s cheap and dumb and clumsily written, less homage and more cinematic hustle job. It explodes all over the place, big scary dudes beat the fuck out of the good guy, and he beats just a little bit more fuck out of them. — TK
Haywire — The bright spot in the film is the presence of Gina Carano, an MMA fighter whose physical energy and skills in the Octagon were what inspired Soderbergh to make the film in the first place. She’s the focus here, and her prowess as a combatant allows for some of the most realistic, impressive fight scenes in a long time. Carano plays Mallory Kane, a mercenary contracted to rescue a kidnapped scientist (Anthony Brandon Wong) from a Barcelona crime lord with the assistance of a squad that includes another young operative named Aaron (Channing Tatum). Mallory’s a human weapon, a living tool for assassination, and she finds herself betrayed by a number of shady contacts and bosses in the aftermath of the Barcelona deal, which in turn leads to a series of increasingly impressive fights to the death (or at least the disabling) as she winds up in a series of jobs that leave her unsure of who to trust. Carano is the most believable female action hero in a long time, bringing a heft to the role that highlights just how laughable some of the other choices have been. She stands 5’8” with just over 140 lbs of defined muscle; this is not Keira Knightley in a tank top, waving an Uzi. — Daniel Carlson