We're a few days into the festive season now: the rush is over, and many will be settling down for a few relaxing days before the usual routine kicks off again in January.
Unsurprisingly, many will be turning to the seemingly endless selection of films on Netflix to see them through the dark evenings. Need some recommendations? Here's a few...
Netflix has long since been taken seriously on the TV front, but 2017 was the year they finally started releasing a few films worth talking about (a few past documentaries aside). There’s still an overemphasis on quantity over quality… but the odd gem like Okja, which Netflix proudly premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, is worth paying attention to.
Of course, it’s no surprise they had something interesting on their hands with the latest film from Bong Joon-ho, the immensely talented South Korea director. This one is, on the surface, a tale of a girl and her giant, genetically engineered ‘super pig’. This is the launching pad for a dizzying tale that is part wild comedy, part thrilling adventure, and part… OK all pro-vegetarian. This doesn’t all work by any stretch - Jake Gyllenhaal feels like he’s in a different film to the rest of the cast - but it is an idiosyncratic, ambitious film that is both a joy to watch and quite unlike anything else.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected)
Netflix’s other Cannes selection for this year, and unsurprisingly also a cut above the rest of their original fare. This was a relatively safe bet: Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale) is one of the most established and acclaimed American indie filmmakers, with a style often suited to the small screen. If this one doesn’t quite reach the heights of his very best, it’s not far off either.
The film the three Meyerowitz siblings - played by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Marvel - and their father (Dustin Hoffman) & his current wife (Emma Thompson). Anyone who has ever seen a Baumbach film will be in warmly familiar territory - this is as sharply written and cleverly observed as you’d expect. But it’s most noteworthy for being the first truly good Adam Sandler film in more than a decade. Punch Drunk Love, for now, remains the definitive Sandler performance, but this one ain’t too shabby.
Back to the Future trilogy
Listen, I don’t need to say much here - you know the score (and I don't just mean that soundtrack). The trilogy has recently been added to, and so no better time to get reacquainted with some old friends. Or maybe you can introduce Marty, Doc, Biff et al to a younger generation if you haven’t already.
It’s Back to the Future, and Back to the Future is always a good thing.
La La Land
12 months ago, 2017 was looking like the year of La La Land. Early word from the US was ecstatic, from critics & audiences alike. When it finally made it over here earlier this year, it was still a hit, but the ‘backlash’ was harder to ignore - it found its fair share of detractors. It was the Oscars, though, that guaranteed the film’s place in history, but not in the most positive sense - it was incorrectly read out as Best Picture, leading to the most awkward gaffe in the Academy’s history. Moonlight may have deserved the award, but the whole thing was a bit of an embarrassment for all involved.
A few months on, it’s worth taking another look at La La Land on its own technicolour terms. Some of the criticism was fair, and this LA-set musical certainly not going to change cinema. But it’s a pleasure to watch - bursting with enthusiasm, colour and good vibes. Director Damien Chazelle is having a ball, and so are the cast. The camera joyfully swoops and drifts around the place, and some of the songs are gems (even if the incredible choreography threatens to overwhelm them at times).
There’s something more going on beneath the surface too - this is a film that goes out of its way to deconstruct many of the classic Hollywood myths. La La Land wears its inspirations on its sleeve - most particularly the French classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - but if ever there was a film for a quiet December night by the fire, this is it.
Jeremy Saulnier’s thriller is a rush of a film: funny, brutal and with barely a wasted second. The set-up is endearingly straightforward. A punk rock band ends up performing in a dodgy bar outside the US city of Portland. The gig doesn’t go swimmingly, but things turn really sour when the band members end up as accidental witnesses to a murder. They get locked in the green room as the skinhead gang that controls the bar decide what do with them.
This is a taut, accessible thriller that finds an amazing level of tension in its simple premise. It’s a violent film at times, but has a blackly comic streak running through it too: it can be almost slapstick in the way some of its ferocious setpieces play out.
The cast are superb: the band members include Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat and the late Anton Yelchin (in one of the best performances), and there’s lots of talented character actors offering support. But it’s the great Patrick Stewart who proves the film’s MVP: as the leader of the skinhead, he goes all in as a charismatic but terrifying villain. He’s having a ball here, and most viewers will too.
For A Few Dollars More
Netflix’s collection of older films tends to be a bit scattershot, but there are typically at least a few stone cold classics in there. A Few Dollars More is one such film currently hiding in a submenu somewhere.
Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name featured in a trilogy of spaghetti westerns from the great Sergio Leone. This is technically the second in the series, but no matter: it, like the others. happily stands alone. This one has it all: duels, shootouts, bank robberies, and - most importantly - a killer soundtrack from Ennio Morricone. 50 years after release, this feels as fresh & playful as ever.