With The Oscars around the corner and too few worthwhile new films in theaters, now is a good time to catch up with some of the best of last year’s films available to stream on Netflix Instant. The list includes 7 of my top 20 films of the year and a few new ones I’ve recently caught up with. Documentaries, international festival favorites, animation, there’s a bit of everything here. Please add a comment if you have other suggestions to add.
The Turin Horse – The final film from Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr certainly demands some patience, but if you’re willing to submit to the rhythm of his transfixing black and white long takes, it can be a mesmerizing experience. In this film, Tarr toys with apocalyptic imagery and tones to ask why we cling to survival when all hope is lost.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – Continuing the trend of existential themes in unlike guises, Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s strange anti-mystery uses incredibly artful digital photography to follow the tedious search for a buried body in the Turkish countryside. Don’t expect much in the way of narrative resolution, but watch how Ceylan’s expands the implications of themes in each scene.
The Deep Blue Sea – If you’re already caught up on Downton Abbey, try this romantic British melodrama from director Terence Davies. Rachel Weisz is heartbreaking as woman looking for more passion than her marriage to an aristocrat can provide, and unlike Downton, this film makes its melodrama count, artistically and emotionally.
How to Survive a Plague – This documentary about ’80s activists working towards better treatment for HIV beautifully uses found footage to bring its characters to life. While other “issue” docs crumple under self-righteousness, David France‘s film never forgets it’s about people, not just a cause.
Red Hook Summer – Spike Lee‘s warm yet never naive new film ruffled a lot of feathers for its mood swings and unpolished street spirit, but I enjoyed the surprise for the same reasons. He lovingly captures the feeling of a lazy summer free from school and allows the spirit of his young performers, not just their characters, to shine.
Oslo, August 31st – This gritty portrait of the temptations facing a recovering drug addict makes an interesting companion piece with the higher-profile Flight. Instead of focusing on the exterior activities of its troubled protagonist, Joachim Trier‘s film attempts to dramatize his inner struggle, brilliantly playing it off those he encounters along the way.
The Grey – Joe Carnahan imbues the survival film with the kind of sober reflection it should have, by nature, had all along, and he nails each part. The blank slate of the film’s snowy wilderness and the allegorical killer wolves allows each character to discover what they’re truly made of.
Chico & Rita – This lovely ode to Cuban jazz of the ’50s might appeal to fans of The Triplets of Belleville and other colorful adult animation films. It buzzes with the vibrancy and rhythm of Havana even as it follows its pair of would-be lovers and talented musicians around the globe and through the years. Tender, sexy and full of great music.
The Hole – If you like Poltergeist, Gremlins or other family-oriented ’80s horror films, try Joe Dante‘s newest. While the scares perhaps aren’t designed for mature audiences, the way it tailors its fright around the unique fears of each family member certainly is, and Dante shows the deft touch needed to craft a successful genre film with a hint sophistication.
5 Broken Cameras – This powerful, Oscar-nominated first-person documentary tells the story of a Palestinian farmer’s resistance to the Israeli army through the footage of his 5 cameras, which, over the years see a lot of action and a take a lot of damage from tear gas canisters and batons. The footage offers a unique insight into the situation, but Emad Burnat‘s thoughtful narration details the psychological toil the ordeal takes on him, his family and his community.
The Kid With A Bike – The newest film from the Belgian filmmaking team the Dardenne Brothers details the confused pain and youthful hope of a boy in an orphanage searching for his neglecting father. The Dardenne Brothers use the minimalism of a filmmaker like Robert Bresson to catalog his ups and downs as he goes through a difficult period between his old life with his father and the chance of a new and brighter one with a caring young woman.