BIRD BOX (2018) One of the positive outcomes of the initially fractious #metoo movement would appear to be both the upswing in stronger, more fully rounded film roles for women, and the greater prevalence of women behind the camera. Netflix’s Bird Box scores the double by offering both, with Sandra Bullock in one of the grittiest roles of her career and Danish filmmaker, Susanne Bier (Brothers, Open Hearts, In A Better World), proving once again that she’s a cinematic force to be reckoned with. In this tense thriller’s dark future, a cruel, unforgiving – and unseen – presence has decimated the world’s population, with all who make the mistake of glimpsing it prompted into a suicidal frenzy. Bullock plays a mother desperately trying to protect her children in the (faceless) face of true horror. Taut and tight, Bird Box is a perfect example of Netflix’s mid-level budget, indie style of filmmaking.
THE SIEGE OF JADOTVILLE (2016) Proving that he’s much more than just the stylish suits and base sexuality of Christian Grey in Fifty Shades Of Grey and its sequels, Irish actor, Jamie Dornan, effectively anchors this thrilling war drama from director, Richie Smyth, making his feature debut after a raft of music videos for U2 and The Verve. Tense and thoughtful but with an undeniably adventurous streak, The Siege Of Jadotville digs into a little known footnote of Irish history, telling the tale of brave, quick thinking Irish Commandant Pat Quinlan (Dornan) who leads a small squadron of troops against French and Belgian Mercenaries in the Congo during the early 1960s. With its rarely filmed setting (faint echoes of the 1968 cult curio, Dark Of The Sun, can certainly be heard) and archetypal story, The Siege Of Jadotville is mightily impressive.
BEASTS OF NO NATION (2015) Idris Elba was rightly praised and awarded (he picked up the Screen Actors’ Guild gong for Best Supporting Actor) for his bravura performance here as the frightening, charismatic leader of a brutal fighting force in a fictional West African nation. Based on the book by Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts Of No Nation – written for the screen and directed by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, upcoming Bond) – is the grim story of young Agu (a fine turn from first timer, Abraham Attah), a boy forced into fighting as a child soldier, who experiences war as both horrific and undeniably thrilling. Brutal and uncompromising, Beasts Of No Nation effectively takes ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling and personalises it with striking force and clarity.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING (2016) Small, performance based indies have found a very happy home on Netflix, and The Fundamentals Of Caring is the perfect example of the streaming service’s support of what once would have played in the nation’s arthouse cinemas. Characteristically charming and self-deprecating, Paul Rudd is Ben, a former writer who takes a caregiving job with 18-year-old Trevor (British actor, Craig Roberts, from the critical darling, Submarine), who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and abides by a strict daily routine. Socially awkward and bitingly cynical, Trevor is fascinated by odd roadside attractions that he sees on the news, which leads to a sweet, funny road trip as Ben gets behind the wheel to show Trevor these oddball sights for himself. Providing feel-good uplift with zero sentimentality, The Fundamentals Of Caring is a true delight.
FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER (2017) Constantly proving herself to be the most unpredictable of Hollywood superstars, Angelina Jolie jumped on board with Netflix for her fifth film as director, continuing to take on difficult, confrontational material. After tackling the Bosnian conflict in 2011’s In The Land Of Blood And Honey and the nightmare of WW2 in 2014’s Unbroken, Jolie takes on another bleak page in world history with First They Killed My Father, which is based upon the writings of human rights activist, Loung Ung, who was five-years-old when The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and took control of Cambodia, and seven-years-old when she finally made it out of her increasingly nightmarish homeland. Showing a tragedy through the eyes of a child (Loung Ung is unforgettably portrayed by gifted young actress, Sareum Srey Moch), First They Killed My Father is powerfully poetic filmmaking from a consistently compelling filmmaker.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018) Providing the streaming service with an unquestionable dose of top-tier credibility, Netflix’s The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs finds hipper-than-thou super-talents, Joel & Ethan Coen, in goofy, arch, weirdly historical terrain, hedging closely to the art of the period (as they did with the divisive Hail, Caesar!) and courting disdain in the process. A pastiche of old-style literature of the great (but ultimately very, very far from great) American West, this violent, bloody, funny, bleak, weird, sad, heartbreaking anthology of stories (featuring the likes of Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco, Tom Waits and Zoe Kazan) is gleefully original and stridently politically incorrect. Featuring the kind of visual wonders and punchy dialogue that made The Coen Brothers famous, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs divides audiences in the way that most great art does.
ROMA (2018) Roma is a throwback to what is truly wonderful about cinema. Set in Mexico City and directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children Of Men), the story centres on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous maid to a middle-class family in the early 1970s. Through Cleo’s wide, open eyes we see the drama unfold in the family’s lives, her own, and more broadly, the country of Mexico and its people. Roma is like a breath of fresh air, transporting the viewer to a land and a time that they would not ordinarily be privy to, through the lens of one of the world’s most gifted filmmakers.
THE BABYSITTER (2017) Whatever happened to McG (Charlie’s Angels)? Well, the filmmaker with the silliest name in the DGA has been working non-stop since his last big screen effort (2014’s 3 Days To Kill), but it’s mainly been on the small screen with TV series like Lethal Weapon and The Mysteries Of Laura. He also directed this manic, loveably lurid, totally B-grade slice of teen horror, which is right at home on Netflix. Splattered with blood and busting at the seams with ironic, knowing humour (as well as a little of McG’s trademark visual overkill), The Babysitter is an adolescent dream that quickly squeezes into a nightmare, as geeky teen, Cole (Judah Lewis), stays up to find out what his sexy babysitter, Bee (a terrific performance from Aussie-on-the-rise, Samara Weaving), gets up to once he’s bedded down for the night. What he discovers will knock your socks off. A lively meld of laughs and viscera, The Babysitter is a wildly entertaining genre buster.
TO THE BONE (2017) After working as a producer on TV titles like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Grey’s Anatomy, Prison Break, Mad Men and Glee, Marti Noxon made her directorial debut in 2017 with the sensitive, thoughtful – but surprisingly funny – drama, To The Bone. Tackling the baffling, deeply troubling issue of anorexia nervosa head on, this is a punchy little flick that avoids the kind of solemnity usually applied to such topics. Ellen (a fine Lily Collins) is a mouthy, defiant anorexic artist who ends up in a treatment centre run by the unconventional Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves in a strangely effective piece of casting), where she soon bumps up against an assortment of supremely damaged fellow travellers. No strident message movie, To The Bone is more a group portrait of people trying to cope under extreme pressure.
I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE (2017) If Netflix is the modern equivalent of a video store (you may have to Google that, younger readers), then none of its Originals feel more like something that should be on VHS than the exhaustingly titled I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore. It’s the kind of ambling, shaggy dog, crime-tinged tale that basically populated the indie scene in the nineties, peopled with oddball characters and (barely) driven forward by a plot built on very, very simple mechanics. Melanie Lynskey (why isn’t this wonderfully talented New Zealand-born actress celebrated in the manner befitting her talent?) is dynamite as Ruth, who deserves that her house has been robbed and ransacked, and then – along with her weirdo neighbour, Tony (Elijah Wood) – sets about settling the score with the low-lives who did it. Funny, strange and inventive, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is perfect at-home viewing.