Netflix has furiously become one of the dominant forces in our everyday media diet. Though, it can easily become exhausting sifting through the thoughtless posters that are meant to represent the story behind them, and so easily we overlook great narratives awash in a sea of over-saturation.
Here are my picks for the best titles to stream right now.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
“I’m not non-violent.” The words that Nina Simone said to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with her tumultuous and incendiary body of work. Liz Garbus’ new Netflix-produced documentary cuts like a laser through the mythology of Simone’s incredible life as both a popular activist and the high priestess of jazz-soul.
Subjects such as her lonely childhood, her reluctant success, and struggles with abusive relationships are finally given as much attention as her passionate civil rights heralding records and performances. This astute and frank film strips back the endless greatest hits compilations to analyze a brilliant mind floundering in multi-faceted physical obsession, flirtations with pop iconography and a delirious, almost militaristic stage presence.
Whether he realizes or not, Kanye West exists because of Simone. Her anthemic, urgent “Sinnerman” has never sounded more relevant. The sound of volatile change in the face of the shackles of an oppressive, systemically racist society.
Stranger By The Lake (2014)
Alain Guiraudie’s astringent erotic thriller takes the New Queer Cinema to heights both dizzying and subtle. Pornographic yet sparse, Stranger By The Lake depicts a pastoral cruising ground for men where handsome Franck meets the even more handsome Michel, who may or may not have murdered his previous lover in the pristine lake the night before.
Echoing Antonioni’s Blow-Up, the viewer must piece together the visual clues via exceptional cinematography. Desire and the mortal dangers that we are willing to overlook in its name are probed with acidic precision. Austere, elegant and at times utterly X-rated, nobody makes thrillers like the French … except for the Spanish …
The Skin I Live In (2011)
If you are unfamiliar with the singular world of Pedro Almodovar, then make yourself acquainted as soon as you can.
One of the greatest living filmmakers, Almodovar’s world is one that draws heavily from the technicolor melodrama of Douglas Sirk and the gross-out nihilism of John Waters, yet distills it all down into his own vibrant, cathartic narratives that celebrate the restored freedom of democratic expression in his native Spain.
The Skin I Live In (starring long-time collaborator Antonio Banderas) subverts both Franju horror and Beauty and the Beast into Almodovar’s own sensual, hysterical dream logic that literally takes a scalpel to the notions of singular-binary gender identity as only he could. One of the best twist endings ever.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014)
Unfortunately, not all directors are allowed to execute their visions without the grubby interference of the financing studios sticking their fingers in the pie. The documentary Lost Soul depicts auteur Richard Stanley’s painstaking efforts to realize H.G. Wells’ classic The Island of Doctor Moreau for the ’90s.
Alas, as production finally commenced, Stanley was fired and replaced by the crumbling John Frankenheimer four days into principal photography — only to reemerge as a costumed extra. The resulting film starring Val Kilmer and a beyond-camp Marlon Brando (Dr. Evil and Mini-me is a direct spoof) is generally regarded as one of the worst films ever made. Oh, but what could have been!
This will appeal to those who enjoyed Jodorowsky’s Dune. For two further deep cuts, Stanley’s Hardware and Dust Devil are unsung masterpieces of ’90s genre filmmaking.
Even the most revered directors have their unsung masterpieces. Ridley Scott’s bizarrely maligned Alien prequel is one of the better examples of the last decade.
Pegged by many as being incoherent or “not making any sense,” Prometheus was designed to be a new touchstone in the afflicted franchise’s mythology that would launch more films. The parallels and Easter eggs are just begging to found.
Not an Alien fan? Fine. Then sit back and enjoy an uncompromising stand-alone action film starring one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory.
The Counselor (2013)
Continuing on the tangent of pessimistic Ridley Scott films featuring an exceptional cast, The Counselor is essentially as ugly as films starring Brad Pitt can get these days.
But forget Pitt — the true prize here is Cameron Diaz. Finally freed from the chains of romantic comedies, Diaz proves herself as one of the best villains Scott or screenwriter Cormac McCarthy have ever produced.
Appearing initially typecast, Diaz turns the tables and delivers a fearless performance. The only aspect of this film that even comes close to touching her is the designer clothing she is draped in. How Cameron Diaz did not even receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for The Counselor will be analyzed as one of Hollywood’s cardinal sins.
With Incendies and Polytechnique, Quebec-born director Denis Villeneuve effortlessly established himself as one of the most exciting, uncompromising filmmakers in the world. Hopes were high for his English language debut, Prisoners. And boy, did he deliver. A straight-forward crime story of child abduction becomes a complex and morally troubling examination of justice and the nature of suspicion in his hands.
Hugh Jackman and the ever-excellent Jake Gyllenhaal both turn in career-best performances as a father seeking answers and the investigator in-over-his-head trying to get them. Ruthless, but never cynical, it is a riveting, unlikely horror film that recalls the bleakness of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing.
Pay attention to the snakes.
Black Book (2006)
You may know Carice Van Houten best as the red sorceress Melisandre from Game of Thrones, but her star-making role was her incredible turn as a young Jewish woman leading the Dutch resistance to infiltrate the Nazi party in Black Book.
This Dutch language film was the first in more than 20 years from director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instict, Total Recall, Robocop).
Van Houten’s remarkable performance anchors arguably the most entertaining World War II film ever made. This is what Tarantino was trying to do in Inglorious Basterds.
Chelsea Perretti: One of the Greats (2014)
Chelsea Perretti (of Brooklyn Nine-Nine fame) is easily one of the sharpest comedians working today.
This feature-length special allows Perretti free reign on a variety of prescient topics. Even tired trope-humour subjects — such as being a female comedian and menstrual cycles — are given breathlessly hilarious new life through the prism of her merciless vision, as she turns the tables on these cliches and fiercely throws them back into the faces of her male peers.
The odd time a joke falls flat, you will still laugh thanks to her stunningly on-point delivery.
But really, what was Netflix created for? Binge-watching a series like you’re dying tomorrow.
Thomas Harris (The Silence of the Lambs) is responsible for some of the best horror/crime characters ever, and his deeply appealing characters are fleshed out even further through the format of a weekly serial. The connections between life and death, man and nature, and sex and food are all intelligently and strikingly presented and thoughtfully analyzed.
If Hugh Dancey’s frankly wimpy protagonist alienates you in the first few episodes, hold tight. Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of the brilliant psychiatrist/cannibal Hannibal Lecter anchors the program. His storyline eventually features the incomparable Gillian Anderson as his own psychiatrist … and then the sparks really fly.
Anderson is equally impressive as one of the best television characters ever created, Special Agent Dana Scully, in The X-Files, also streaming on Netflix. (Editor’s note: And check out the 2014 U.K. series The Fall on Netflix, in which Anderson plays a seasoned London detective drafted by the Belfast police to help them catch an elusive serial killer.)