Netflix – the vast and diverse virtual universe that absorbs hours of your time with its extensive library of films and television shows. While most people use it to binge watch “Lost” for the umpteenth time or look into that blockbuster that you didn’t feel like spending a $15 theater ticket on, there are actually a lot more than just sitcoms and action flicks to watch. Sadly, just because independent films have become evermore popular with critics and AMPAS voters doesn’t mean everyone gets to see them or even hear about them. And yet, whether you realize it or not, most of these little movies are right at the fingertips of every Netflix account holder. Here are just a few movies, in no particular order, to check out on Netflix if you’re looking for a taste of the indie cinematic spirit.
10. The History of Future Folk
No one ever made a more oddly creative and truly unique movie about the transformative power of music than the zany albeit adorable movie The History of Future Folk. General Trius is an alien warrior sent from the planet Hondo to destroy the planet Earth with a deadly virus; but before he gets the chance, he hears the music of the Earthlings and has a change of heart. He becomes Bill Hunt, gets married, has a daughter, and secretly has a one-man sci-fi folk music act. But unbeknownst to him, Hondo has sent someone else to finish the job. Directors Mitchell and Walker accomplish an incredible amount with the tiny budget they have, all the while never loosing their whimsy to gimmicks. It is altogether so bright and artistically resourceful that you can’t help but at least admire it.
9. You’re Next
Horror movies are so easily swept aside by people who consider themselves serious about cinema, graded on a scale completely separate from all other movies. Hopefully, with movies like the mumblecore horror sleeper You’re Next, such narrow opinions will soon change. The movie follows the members of the Davidson family who have just gathered for a reunion in their lavish Missouri home when they are attacked by masked killers. While most scary movies aim only to make its viewers jump out of their skins, this horror movie is fitted with an engaging story that unfolds organically rather than a cut and dry plot to move the action forward. The victims behave like real people, the killers have true motive, and the final girl survives by her wits and not because of happenstance luck. It is so much more than just a home invasion horror flick, and that makes it worth anyone’s while… if you can stand the blood and gore, that is.
8. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Even if you never enjoyed eating sushi, by the end of the David Gelb documentary you will definitely have an appreciation for it. There are few movies out there that so eloquently combine a fascinating man’s life story with such glorious food porn. The film takes you in hand and leads you through all aspects of what it takes to be Jiro Ono, greatest sushi chef at the most lauded sushi restaurant in the world. Gelb shows you everything required for culinary greatness from a taut work ethic to a clean kitchen to patient apprentices to expertly chosen ingredients to perfect sushi composition. Most movies about chefs and restaurants never truly capture the most important part about food – how it tastes – but Jiro Dreams of Sushi is such a rich experience in every sense of the word that it will leave even the empty bellies feeling satiated.
7. The Station Agent
You are probably familiar with (at least through pop-culture osmosis) Peter Dinklage in the guise of his famous “Game of Thrones” character Tyrion Lannister, but his excellence as an actor was apparent long before he began working for HBO. Dinklage plays Fin, a man who moves out into the middle of nowhere to live a quiet life. But his plan is foiled when the obnoxiously friendly Joe and the secretly wounded Olivia become a part of his life in the last way he suspects. Tom McCarthy has proved himself capable of telling the most achingly human and beautiful stories, but this, his first writing/directorial effort, is the most elegant balance of earnestness and humor. If you watch it once, you’re prone to watching it again and again.
6. The Double
Who would want to take the time to watch a modern dystopian film adaptation of an early 19th century Dostoyevsky novella directed by a British comedian? Anyone in search of a darkly comedic and self-aware art house movie, that’s who. Of course, not everyone prefers artsy fartsy fare, but trying on The Double for size would be worth the while of anyone who has a broad palate for cinema. Simon is a boring guy who lives a boring life, until one night he witnesses his neighbor commit suicide. The next day he shows up at work to find James, a perfect doppelganger, taking credit for his work and moving in on his office crush – is he still living in the real world or has he gone totally insane? Director Richard Ayoade utilizes the full, brilliant acting talents of leads Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska perfectly within his wry and weird little tale. If you’re ever looking for something different, put this one at the top of the I’ll-try-it-when-the-mood-strikes list.
5. The Hunt
Mob mentality is a very powerful thing and there are very few films that display its force and gravity as artfully as the Danish drama The Hunt. Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a kind and friendly man who lives a quiet life as a teacher in a small, sleepy town. But his work and personal life are reduced to ashes when he is falsely accused of molesting one of his young students. While the film is sharp and devastating from end to end, from its cinematography and screenwriting to Thomas Vinterberg’s directing, the true draw of the film is Mikkelsen. Most people might only recognize him in his villain roles, such as Le Chiffre in 2006’s Casino Royale and the eponymous psycho on TV’s “Hannibal,” but the native Dane evokes pain, compassion, and sympathy equivalent of any truly great actor. If you take the time to see this heartbreaking movie, not only will you have witnessed greatness but it will put you way ahead of the curve when Mads Mikkelsen hits it big as an international star.
It’s a mark of pride for a person when they achieve so much that their name is turned into a common word – granted few people would be happy to know their name was associated with the act of inflicting pain on others to give oneself pleasure, but the Marquis de Sade would have loved it. Based on the Doug Wright play of the same name, Quills chronicles the last days of the infamous libertarian pornographic author inside a Napoleonic madhouse; when the Emperor discovers the Marquis has been publishing his works from his confinement, he sends a ruthless and uncompromising practitioner to correct the behavior in lieu of execution and a battle of wills between doctor and patient ensues. Considering the focus of the film, it was impossible not to include a good amount of lewdness and twisted sexuality into the story, but with director Philip Kaufman’s sensitivity it rises far above the crass sex-mongering joke that it could have been in lesser hands. With an incredible cast – Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine – lives of the characters of Quills unfolds in the most pure and human ways as the boorish and unabashed cretin with an insatiable appetite for all things perverse and horrible teaches them (and the audience) what self-awareness is and how crucial it can be for living a full life.
3. All Is Lost
If you’ve seen J.C. Chandor’s first film Margin Call, a wonderfully taut star-studded Wall Street drama, you might be curious if he would be able to apply the same brooding intensity and perfectly orchestrated dramatic tempo to a movie about a man stranded at sea. Hollywood veteran Robert Redford comprises the entire cast of All Is Lost, the story of a sailor who is forced to abandon his ship after a horrible storm damages it beyond repair. With only a literal handful of words populating the entire script, the audience watches Redford’s character (dubbed “Our Man” in the credits) struggle for his life as a seemingly endless number of mishaps plagues him. The amount of emotion generated by such a simple plot is as much a testament to Chandor’s behind-the-camera efforts as it is to Redford’s acting, whose wrinkled albeit handsome face is full of arresting emotion. It doesn’t matter that there are virtually no spoken words – Redford gives you a thousand things to look at.
2. Mary & Max
Almost every country in the world except the United States knows that animated movies are more than just trite, colorful vehicles filled with songs and giggles to made to please children and tickle adult nostalgia – they have just as much potential to embody openly sophisticated themes as live action films. A perfect example of this is the Australian claymation dramedy Mary & Max. Mary is young, only child living in Melbourne when she decides to write a random person and hope to get a pen pal. The man she writes is Max, a middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger’s Syndrome who is happy to have someone to talk to; the two start to trade regular letters and eventually become lifelong friends. While the film has a plucky charm about it, that shouldn’t fool you into thinking that its anywhere near being children’s fare. Based on writer/director Adam Elliot’s life, the story explores both the complexity and import of personal relationships and how impactful even the most distant of friendships can be. There is also a wonderful surprise for those who are fans of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who gives equal amounts of drollness and charisma is his vocal performance of Max Horovitz.
1. Liberal Arts
If the show “How I Met Your Mother” proved anything about writer/director/actor Josh Radnor, it is that he’s an incredibly loquacious guy. While his talent for articulation was evident on television, it isn’t until you get into his movies that you actually see just how great he is when it comes to the spoken word, namely his sophomore effort Liberal Arts. He plays Jesse, a thirty-five year-old admissions officer who has all but lost his vigor for life until he meets the vibrant nineteen year-old Zibby. As he starts to rediscover his passion for all things, he begins to question whether or not he is comfortable with having a romantic relationship with a teenager. While his penchant for pontificating on the beauty of literature can get tedious, Radnor’s ability to maintain self-awareness and true-to-life characters in the middle of such a sentimental story is the mark of a great filmmaker. Liberal Arts will be remembered as one of the incredible early movies in the career of an outstanding writer and director.