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Isolation survival guide: Underrated films on Netflix

As a companion to our recent Amazon Prime Video watchlist, below is a series of equally essential Netflix titles. There’s something for the introvert, something for the extrovert, films that challenge, others that take you on adventure, choices from the American canon, selections from elsewhere. 

The common ground is escapism. This is something we all need right now, in compliance with government social distancing regulations: 90 minutes, 120, or 150 that transport us to another world from the comfort of our own four walls. After all, this is the magic of cinema – and there’s plenty to be found after digging deeper than the Netflix homepage.

INFERNAL AFFAIRS (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002)

Martin Scorsese’s The Departed has been showered in acclaim since 2006, doing a slight disservice to the Hong Kong crime thriller it’s a remake of. Scorsese substituted the Triad for the Irish Mob and Hong Kong for South Boston, repackaging the film as something leaner, louder and meaner in the process.

Yet there’s a lot to be said for executing this double informant story with a slice of elegance, even melodrama. Scorsese’s different beast was a refreshing approach to the stagnating “remake” model; nonetheless, there’s equal merit in Lau and Mak’s original. An Indian remake is also on the way, so now is the perfect time to give this a go (not to mention Infernal Affairs II and III). 

APOLLO 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, 2019)

The Netflix powers that be recently added last year’s fiftieth anniversary documentary of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins’ moon landing. The film is outstanding, playing out without external voiceover, without interviews, with little text overlay.

The remastered archival footage is given centre stage, forming a tight, trimmed thriller masquerading as fiction. Miller subverts familiar documentary framework in the pursuit of important historical storytelling; the experiment works so well it was a regular fixture on end of year “Best of” lists.

FRUITVALE STATION (Ryan Coogler, 2013)

By 2018, Coogler was a major Hollywood name, helming Rocky Balboa comeback Creed in 2015 before putting out Marvel’s Black Panther three years later. But his debut feature is his most searing and unforgettable. Made for less than a million dollars, it went on to earn over seventeen – icing on the cake after success at Cannes, Sundance, and in the wider sphere of independent cinema.

The biographical drama is based on the events leading to the death of Oscar Grant, who was killed by a police officer at the Fruitvale district station in Oakland in 2009. This politically charged indictment – of institutional racism, of police brutality – is directed at Coogler’s own country but not exclusive to it. He takes on the urgent contemporary problem with the tenacity of a director with twenty films to his name.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (Lynne Ramsay, 2018)

The Los Angeles Times once dubbed Ramsay one of “the most celebrated British filmmakers of her generation.” The high praise reflects the hard work of a twenty-year career, but the projects released in this time have been carefully selected, laboured over, then released few and far between.

Of her four, You Were Never Really Here is her strongest: a tortured psycho-thriller centred on a veteran that tracks down missing girls for a living. Behind this uncompromising protagonist is Joaquin Phoenix, a performance that leaves you scratching your head wondering why Joker got so much fuss and this film didn’t.

THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO (Hayao Miyazaki, 1979)

On April Fool’s Day, the last batch of Studio Ghibli films are slated to drop on Netflix, joining almost every other title the beloved animation studio has released. It’s a catalogue of spoils – from the iconic Spirited Away to the unsung Only Yesterday, from the timelessness of My Neighbour Totoro to the sobering maturity of The Wind Rises.

Ghibli co-founder Miyazaki released this debut feature before the studio came into existence, but it should be no less treasured. An adaptation of the Monkey Punch manga series, the comedy follows the escapades of gentleman thief Arsène Lupin III. They are irresistibly fun and frequently hilarious, paving the way for the more famous work Miyazaki would go on to be responsible for.

KICKING AND SCREAMING (Noah Baumbach, 1995)

Baumbach’s debut is an underappreciated coming of age delight. Underpinning it is a group of college graduates struggling to move on with their lives, an ensemble played by a modest cast including Josh Hamilton, Chris Eigeman, Eric Stoltz and Parker Posey.

The film fluctuates between minimalist dramatic set pieces (where the emphasis is on a conversation subject, however incidental or important) and grand, sweeping gestures that play on the conventions of rom-com. These include a particularly iconic opening grad ball and a pivotal scene at an airport. 

FIRST REFORMED (Paul Schrader, 2017)

Released in the UK in summer 2018, Schrader’s film remained one of the year’s highlights right until the end of it, even if it was overlooked by that year’s Academy Awards. Ethan Hawke’s turn as Reverend Ernst Toller is career best: the pastor of New York’s First Reformed Church grapples with a crisis of faith, bringing a performance that relies on the minutiae of facial expressions and tones of voice.

The film spirals as Hawke’s faith is gradually poisoned by doubt, culminating in one of the most memorable final scenes of the past few years.

BLUE VELVET (David Lynch, 1986)

The imitable Lynch has released at least three masterpieces in Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet (five if Eraserhead and Inland Empire sneak into that bracket). This, the chronological first of that indisputable three, holds an all too recognisable mirror to the deceptive American Dream – from its opening shots of blue skies, white picket fences, and quasi-surrealist suburbia.

When the narrative proper begins and we zoom in on a severed ear decaying in a field, it’s clear that the natural cinematic mutation of that deception is horror. Anchored by breakout performances from Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern, this haunting mystery is the perfect place to start with Lynch. Thank us later.

THE WAILING (Hong-Jin Na, 2016)

With the recent hike in interest in Korean cinema, the names that keep cropping up alongside Bong Joon-Ho are Park Chan-Wook, Kim Jee-Woon and Lee Chang-Dong. Hong-Jin Na is as exciting and idiosyncratic, however. Third feature The Wailing is an encapsulation of everything his films borrow from and experiment with: horror, apocalypse, ritual, the detective investigation, the pandemic.

In line with the last of these, this film offers the alternative selection for a film reflecting what’s happening in the world today. You know, for when Contagion and The Host reruns begin to get repetitive. 

CREEP (Patrick Brice, 2014)

Watching Brice’s “found footage” horror film back-to-back with its sequel takes the same amount of time it does to watch a lot of films once. But don’t be fooled by the brevity, budget, or familiarity of the premise: these films are hypnotically tense, not an extension of the subgenre so much as a parody of the idea. Leading actor Jay Duplass (who co-wrote both) shifts between fear and farce like the flick of a light switch.

With Creep 3 in production, Netflix will presumably not be taking these anywhere – neither the abrasive Creep nor Creep 2, which actively tied the conceit up in more and more knots, to great results. While you’re staying safe indoors, seek them out.


Also Read: Here’s how to have a Netflix Party without leaving home