The Hidden Gems of 2017 Movies Are on ... Netflix?

Posted January 18, 2018 9:42 p.m. EST
Updated January 19, 2018 5:44 a.m. EST

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first two months of the year are desolate times for movie lovers who prefer to gorge on new releases. Once the holiday season’s tidal wave of blockbusters and prestige pictures has receded, there is not much action beyond the awards season. Releasing only chaff during the first two months of the year has been a studio tradition so long-standing that nobody seems to remember the rationale. But even for awards mavens, now is a good time to catch up and explore.

During the last week of 2017, I was out of New York, visiting relatives, and one evening circumstances left me alone in their house with a few hours to kill. I ended up using my phone to watch “Série Noire,” a grimy 1979 French crime thriller that I saw maybe 20 years ago, via a pretty grimy-in-itself 16-millimeter print, and had no expectation to see again. Directed by Alain Corneau, the movie is an adaptation of the novel “A Hell of a Woman,” by the American genre writer Jim Thompson. (Corneau wrote the screenplay with Georges Perec, the French literary genius who wrote “Life: A User’s Manual.”)

The story line of “Série Noire” is jaw-droppingly squalid — less than 10 minutes into the movie an abusive aunt is pimping her young niece (Marie Trintignant) to a feckless traveling salesman (Patrick Dewaere) — and the movie’s setting, an impoverished Paris suburb in the depths of a drippy winter, is depicted with such rigor that you suspect the film stock itself of carrying mold. Not everyone’s cup of tea, obviously, and not to make light of trigger warnings, but this movie could conceivably be eligible for at least a dozen of them. But I’ve long found it unnerving and fascinating, and when a friend on social media mentioned that it was available on FilmStruck, I was genuinely surprised.

One comes to expect at least a certain amount of the unexpected on a carefully curated site like FilmStruck. That’s less true of Netflix. Still, I’ve always thought the commonly propagated complaint about the dearth of “classic” films on Netflix something of a straw man. The streaming service has never advertised itself as a curated haven of greatness. People perhaps confuse Netflix’s DVD rental service, which offers a variety of older and critically elevated films, with the streaming service, on which you can’t watch “Citizen Kane” or “Casablanca.”

My own complaint about the service is more about the presentation of the movies they have than the quality of the movies themselves. It’s no secret that Netflix doesn’t do a great job letting consumers know what more recent critical favorites are available, so if you’re on that site and looking for hidden gems, you’re not going to find them gathered under a category. Nor is it a sure thing that the site’s algorithm is going to recommend them to you.

But they’re there. A few weeks back, Bilge Ebiri, the lead film critic for The Village Voice, placed “My Happy Family,” a drama from Tblisi, Georgia, at the top of his 2017 best films list. Ebiri had first seen it at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2017, and after that it dropped from sight. It is on Netflix. Another 2017 Sundance favorite, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” turned up on Netflix shortly after it played the festival. But these streaming premieres were hardly big Netflix events. A big Netflix event is “Bright,” a sci-fi fantasy film widely mocked by reviewers that garnered sufficient viewership on the service to justify a sequel. I understand the relations of scale between indie films and blockbusters, but in the streaming world there ought to be a middle ground between “Bright"-style exposure and zero public awareness.

That said, the service now has more than a few films that made my own best-of-2017 list, and a couple that skirted it. All of them are provocative, pertinent, well made and in some cases entertaining. “The Unknown Girl,” directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, is a typically high-quality drama from the Belgian filmmakers, this one a mystery with a social conscience that begins with a young doctor going by regulations and not allowing clinic entrance to a young woman after hours. When the woman is later found dead, the doctor is determined to find her killer. “Last Men in Aleppo” is a documentary about volunteer medical aid workers in war-torn Syria. “The Son of Joseph,” written and directed by American-born French filmmaker Eugène Green, is a droll comedic moral tale whose baroque trappings make it an initially puzzling but eventually winning delight. If you’re looking for something a little more overtly perverse, “Slack Bay,” a Bruno Dumont comedy about class difference and cannibalism set in a French beach community that seems at least partly out of one of Hergé's “Adventures of Tintin,” will do the trick. “The Ornithologist,” a new film from Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues, is a religious allegory on queer themes, and one of the most disarming theologically inflected films since Luis Buñuel’s “The Milky Way.” “A Woman, a Part,” written and directed by Elisabeth Subrin and featuring a spectacular lead performance from Maggie Siff, is a sharp portrait of an actor in crisis that takes more pleasure in artistic ambiguity than most such studies do.

And because I myself haven’t seen all of the critically praised pictures of 2017, I intend to use Netflix for catching up on, among others, “Graduation,” the latest film from the always-trenchant Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, “Strong Island,” a Netflix Original documentary about racism in the United States, focused on the 1992 murder of William Ford Jr., and directed by his brother, Yance Ford; and “Super Dark Times,” an intense teen thriller. The offering I’m most looking forward to is Errol Morris’ epic CIA and LSD saga “Wormwood,” not just streaming on Netflix but, like “Strong Island” and, um, “Bright,” a Netflix Original. These should keep me happily occupied until I’m obliged to pay attention to awards season again.