Top Netflix Films of 2018
The streaming service has upped its game when it comes to original films, filling gaps that studios allowed to form in the theatrical space. The top Netflix films are
Some have argued that if Netflix hadn’t stepped up to acquire Alfonso Cuarón’s intensely personal 135-minute, black-and-white, Mexico-set, Spanish-language art film, some other company would have, but the truth is, “Roma” could only exist at this moment, when Netflix is willing to gamble on the kind of movies no studio would back (considering that, over the past quarter-century, only a dozen foreign-language films have earned more than $15 million in U.S. theaters — “Roma’s” estimated budget, and less than Participant Media was asking distributors to pony up, based on roughly 15 minutes of footage and a whole lot of faith). Granted, Cuarón’s hindsight-enhanced tribute to the housekeeper who raised him was shot on detail-rich high-definition digital cameras and practically screams out for a big-screen experience. Is it a shame that the film is getting a smaller theatrical rollout than most year-end awards contenders? Sure, but the trade-off is that people living in cities where such a movie would never screen were able to see this deserving Venice Film Festival winner the day it was released, as evidenced by a Christmas Day conversation with cousins who live in rural Hesperia, Calif.
2. “Sunday’s Illness”
Speaking of exquisite Spanish-language movies, one of the best-kept secrets on Netflix this year has been Ramón Salazar’s gorgeous, perfectly calibrated study of a self-made society woman forced to spend 10 days with the grown daughter whose existence she conveniently scrubbed for fear that it would jeopardize her newfound aristocratic status. Netflix’s dealings around the world (where many markets require the company to dedicate a percentage of its service to local content) have compelled it to take a proactive role in co-producing interesting projects, and this one got a bigger push in Spanish markets. Like “I Am Love,” this festival treasure takes a sensuous yet nuanced approach to family melodrama, revealing fresh facets to an age-old dynamic.
Technically, Alex Garland’s tricksy second feature — an even more ambitious follow-up to the mind-bending “Ex Machina” that stars Natalie Portman and a mostly female cast — was released by Paramount in the U.S., although the studio got cold feet about the movie (considered too cerebral for regular sci-fi audiences) and sold international distribution rights to Netflix. At the time, I took that news as a scandal, since overseas audiences wouldn’t have a chance to see the marvels of Area X on the big screen. With distance, however, it seems “Annihilation” actually did better where word of mouth had a chance to build.
4. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
Many of us were confused when the Coen brothers’ off-the-wall Western was first reported as a TV series, but the end result proved far more enticing — a typically eccentric six-part anthology film in which each star-studded “chapter” could conceivably stand alone, or else be binge-watched as a single feature. That’s one of the beauties of Netflix, as illustrated by the “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” interactive-viewing experiment: Without passive audiences, MPAA ratings, and theater-imposed runtime limits, artists are free to innovate. In “Buster Scruggs,” each bit sparkles, but the vignette featuring Zoe Kazan as woman navigating the Oregon trail is a real gem.
5. “Come Sunday”
You could tell something was different about this year’s Netflix slate as early as January, when the company unveiled a handful of original projects at the Sundance Film Festival, ranging from Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” (which landed on quite a few critics’ year-end lists) and David Wain’s “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” (disappointing) to Gloria Allred portrait “Seeing Allred”and the buzzy multipart doc series “Wild, Wild Country.” The best of these was Joshua Marston’s remarkable adaptation of a “This American Life” story about a Pentecostal preacher — an Oscar-worthy performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor — who was cast out after questioning the church’s idea of hell. The result was a sensitive, intelligent film aimed squarely at the faith-based crowd, who’ve grown weary of Hollywood’s heathen ways.