Over the past two years, Netflix has been building itself in the image of a legitimate film studio. They got started with documentary films and have held a consistent and impactful presence in that space — we were and still are stunned by the likes of Virunga and 13th — but it wasn’t until the release of Beasts of No Nation when the potential to carve a space in narrative filmmaking really presented itself. And as with any company trying out new things, Netflix stumbled. For every The Fundamentals of Caring, there were five to six dramatic duds. Adam Sandler comedies drowned out the Win It Alls of the bunch. But recently, the conversation and controversy around Netflix has ramped up, and that’s because they’ve been making seriously good movies. Almost all complaints about the streaming company’s release model are valid, but it’s difficult to deny the pure quality and singularity of films such as Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father. 2017 is shaping up to be the best year for Netflix and truly just the start of what they likely intend to do down the line. And with The Meyerowitz Stories, which genuinely makes up for the Adam Sandler atrocities with a wonderful Sandler performance, the best of the best for Netflix throughout its film production/distribution endeavors is quite a formidable group. Here is our list for the top 10 Netflix original films:
10. The Ivory Game
Following in the footsteps of Virunga, The Ivory Game presents itself as an international (Kenya, Tanzania, Hong Kong) thriller working to uncover the dark truths of elephant poaching. Unlike Virunga though, The Ivory Game is less tepid to show the true mutilations and horrors of the violence being committed against these beautiful, sacred animals. As with most advocacy docs, it is heavy-handed and straightforward in its approach, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful.
— Levi Hill
9. I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Macon Blair’s directorial debut also happens to be the 2017 winner of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition, and for good reason. Its one-two punch of humor and violence makes for a quirky crime-comedy, one that simply asks for people to do right by each other. If anything, the film is worth checking out for Melanie Lynskey’s performance as a windpipe-breaking, novice vigilante, and Elijah Wood as a shuriken-chucking eccentric.
— Harrison Tunggal
8. First They Killed My Father
Angelina Jolie’s latest directorial effort also happens to be her best and most important. First They Killed My Father functions as a memoir of author Loung Ung’s childhood during the Khmer Rouge’s regime, but it also acts as the therapeutic recollections of an entire country. This film belongs to Cambodia, a testament to the country’s collective trauma, a filmic monument. Jolie crafts such a monument with precision, delivering some of the year’s most haunting visuals, making First They Killed My Father a singularly important film in Netflix’s library.
— Harrison Tunggal
7. Our Souls at Night
Our Souls at Night is a quiet piece, a film that, like those at the age of the main characters, takes its time and doesn’t take things too seriously, but, when real emotions are at stake, can engage and devote care unlike any other. And in that way, we don’t really realize how emotionally invested we are as viewers until the end of the film. The pacing is so methodical, the dialogue so calculated to construct a genuine naturalism that we become enveloped in a seriously refreshing type of cinematic experience. But the majority of work done to craft empathy is through Jane Fonda and, especially, Robert Redford. Redford is incredibly vulnerable, shouldering the weight of his character’s backstory in such immensely affecting ways, whether that be through the breathy delivery of a single line of dialogue at the end of the film or through a short glance during the various emotional moments. It’s a performance that is reserved yet entirely wholesome, and one of the best of 2017.
— Kyle Kizu
6. Gerald’s Game
While It is undoubtedly the bigger crowd-pleaser and entertainer, Netflix’s Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game may honestly be the better film. Navigating one location and one character’s mind for a majority of its runtime, Gerald’s Game is a surprisingly visual and intensely engaging story. The editing, cinematography, lighting and, especially, the vigorous and committed performances from Bruce Greenwood and Carla Gugino all work harmoniously to construct a world of hallucinatory, overwhelming terror, and the story and main character are granted a sense of empathy and care, even if a bit too on the nose, that too many horror pieces are devoid of. If not for anything else, though, seek out Gerald’s Game for one of the most physically affecting gore sequences of recent memory. It’s truly sickening. In a sickeningly good cinematic way.
— Kyle Kizu
In due time, people will begin to see that, in 2014, Citizenfour wasn’t the most important documentary of that year, but rather, Virunga had the most to say regarding humanity, animal rights, conservation measures and how capitalism and war affect everyone and everything. Merging an investigative reporting style about bribery and greed for French oil companies depleting the natural beauty and resources of the Virunga National Park, with a tender look at the selfless gorilla caregivers in the park, the film presents a breathtakingly beautiful, but horrifically heartbreaking look at the complex political issues in the region.
— Levi Hill
4. The Meyerowitz Stories
The Meyerowitz Stories features the best performance Adam Sandler has ever given. He nails this quiet complexity, where he is outwardly loud and has random moments of (comic) swearing, but, for the most part, keeps his pain under the surface. The film is pretty low-key and likely won’t gain much awards traction, but Sandler deserves notes throughout the season for his turn. The whole cast, though, is excellent throughout, with Hoffman being particularly affecting as a cranky, retired intellectual, and the film itself is truly wonderful, a very distinctive but realistic New York state-of-mind story that only Noah Baumbach could concoct.
— Levi Hill
Even though Netflix tends to get flack for burying its projects deep in its library of titles, and for not properly promoting any of them, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is such a delightfully unconventional film that one has to commend Netflix for letting it see the light of day, especially when the release of Bong’s previous film, Snowpiercer, was fumbled by the true winner of Mirando’s super pig contest, Harvey Weinstein. Functioning as a 21st century, sci-fi reupholstering of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Okja has plenty to say about the meat industry, capitalism and Jake Gyllenhaal’s facial hair (it’s Oscar worthy). The film does it with a blend of humor, warmth and violence, and while such a combination would feel out of place in any other director’s hands, Bong maneuvers a wide spectrum of tones with ease. As a Cannes competitor, Okja is one of the year’s best films, and it’s a film that truly elevates Netflix’s stable of original projects.
— Harrison Tunggal
With 13th, Selma director Ava DuVernay returns to the topic of race relations in the United States, making an equally as powerful, yet strikingly different artistic statement as she did with the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic. Tracking the changes in racism and how it takes form from the abolition of slavery until now, DuVernay truly defines what “necessary cinema” means — but not simply with content, but also with how she directs and composes said content. Strangely for a documentary film, the interview cinematography is intimate and blunt. The score guides the viewer through the overwhelming amount of information to consume, and the editing renders the progression of over 100 years smooth and fluid. But DuVernay never allows it to be easy to forget the true weight of this all. Words slam onto the screen, highlighted by every aspect of the film to force us to confront the horrific facts that have been produced by a system built on slavery. The cliche is true: 13th should be in classrooms across the country. Or maybe Netflix has become that classroom, giving this brilliant film a massive platform.
— Kyle Kizu
1. Beasts of No Nation
What can be said about the film that put Netflix on the theatrical map, a great movie that went nearly unnoticed in traditional distribution and at the Oscars, is that people began to question if Netflix would be the right company to release these vital films. Regardless of how people feel about Netflix’s distribution model though, there’s no doubting that Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation is not only his best movie, but the best movie Netflix has ever released. Featuring a heartbreaking debut performance from Abraham Attah, and what should have been an Oscar-winning turn from Idris Elba (he won the SAG and the BAFTA, only to be snubbed of even a nomination by the Oscars), Beasts of No Nation is one of the most politically important war movies ever made. Acting as a Heart of Darkness-esque descent into the violence that plagues young children who are torn away from their homes and forced to fight in militias, Beasts of No Nation never shies away from showing the atrocities of these wars created by adults and fought by kids. If you haven’t seen the film yet, then please do, as the fact that the film will always exist for streaming on Netflix is one of the many great elements of this new model of film distribution.
— Levi Hill
Featured image via Netflix.