Science fiction nightmare scenario!
Picture this: having already, wisely, ditched Netflix’s disc service for streaming-only, you wake up to learn that Netflix will cease operations altogether, 30 days from today. In other words, you have 30 days to watch films until the company, hollowed out from fleeing investors and more rapidly fleeing subscribers, blinks out of existence like the LED light on an unplugged electric appliance. What do you watch?
Arbitrarily assuming you only have time for one movie per day (and most of us have less time than that), here are a few streaming titles you could get to first:
Classic, underseen noir from under-reported American soon-to-be-expat auteur Cy Endfield, it’s known by two titles, one a considerably better representation of its inner vitriol than the other. Noir could be a melancholy genre, a sarcastic genre, a terrifying genre… but in films like this, it was a bitterly angry wave of films that hurled brickbats and spittle. Ace lead performance by underutilized (sense a theme here?) leading man Frank Lovejoy.
29. Moonrise(Frank Borzage, 1948)
Following a successful career as a screen actor, Frank Borzage directed numerous box office hits in the silent era and the 1930s, and won two directing Oscars in the process, but his career was on the wane when he made this dreamlike noir for Republic, from a novel by Theodore Strauss. Modestly budgeted and ignored at the time, it’s now considered one of the director’s richest works. Photographed by John L. Russell, who went on to shoot Psycho.
This is a bit of a cheat – you couldn’t possibly watch 15 seasons of Whedonverse TV in one month, plus the ingenious web series starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day, plus the theatrical feature film. No sir. But if you had to trim it down to the bare essentials, you could just arbitrarily watch only the episodes that Whedon directed, which far exceed the baseline standard of each of the shows he created. Make a point of watching “Hush,” “The Body,” “Prophecy Girl,” “Chosen,” “Who Are You?” (from Buffy), “Conviction,” “Waiting in the Wings,” and “Spin the Bottle” (from Angel), “Objects in Space” (from Firefly), just the first season of Dollhouse. Not a completely satisfying experience – if you’re going to watch these shows, you might as well go whole hog – but hey, the clock’s ticking.
Most of the Hungarian auteur’s work (for example, Day of the Outlaw, None Shall Escape, Last of the Comanches, Ramrod, Crime Wave, and Pitfall) is missing from Netflix Instant – and you should probably see the magnificently desolate, blackly comic Play Dirty projected on a screen the size of an airplane hangar to do it justice – but even his “minor” work is distinctive. De Toth’s rare attempt at glossy melodrama, The Other Love, for example, is standard-issue material, the kind of thing Sirk or Negulesco would illustrate in broad, operatic strokes. In De Toth’s care, it’s certainly more than a bit of that, but there’s an undercurrent of “no escape,” of cold, concrete textures, that adds an extra dimensionality typical of a director whose work often had the feeling of barbed wire and ice water.
26. Phantasm II (Don Coscarelli, 1988)
Okay, this one’s kinda dumb, and makes no sense, and has that flying glass ball with spring-loaded weapons that go “zzzzhring!” Still, there was once a time when weird horror ideas were the stuff of mainstream Hollywood, and this was Universal’s idea of a good idea as recently as 1988. Looking at it with fresh eyes, Phantasm II is remarkably nasty, its anarchic treatment of into-the-dungeons-to-complete-some-mission bordering on the abstract, but also bracingly disconcerting and surprisingly well-shot. Funny, violent, with an outstanding cold open and a (now) iconic villain.
25. Number 17 (Alfred Hitchcock, 1932)
So much has been written about Hitchcock, and discussed, and pored over, and discussed again, and so on, that the subject of his second-rate films gets more ink than the best-known work of almost every other director in film history. As such, his oddball 1932 “old dark house” thriller Number 17 is decidedly not upper-echelon Hitch, but it’s one of his most thrillingly dreamlike, a near-masterpiece of incoherence with an apocalyptic big finish. It’s the kind of thing that might actually be better viewed on a worn VHS tape… or a Netflix stream.
One of the happiest, albeit tangential, developments of the success of Netflix Instant is that it’s now likely one of the single largest legitimate sources of Korean cinema (and TV!!) on the internet, at least for North American viewers. From an auteurist standpoint, it’s not all that comprehensive, offering only about 1 in 4 titles each from directors like Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong, and Bong Joon-ho. Diving into a single title and using Netflix’s associative algorithm might prove more rewarding. Some lesser-known but acclaimed Korean films on Instant include The Unjust (Ryoo Seung-wan), and The Chaser (Na Hong-win), but you can also check out early work by Hong (The Power of Kangwon Province, The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors), Bong’s critically-acclaimed Mother, and Lee’s 2010 festival triumph, Poetry. And that’s just scratching the surface.
23. late-period Joseph H. Lewis double feature: The Big Combo and Terror in a Texas Town
Like Edgar G. Ulmer, Lewis responded to poverty-row budgets by crafting some of the most unusual, and personal, films to emerge from the old studio system. Catnip for the auteurist critic, true, but deeply pleasurable all the same. The baroque flourishes he brought to these genre pictures, two of the last five he would make before decamping for TV work (from which he would retire in 1966), raise them well beyond the limits of their elemental stories.
22. Doppelganger (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003)
One of the Pulse director’s first big breaks was Sweet Home, a Soavi-esque horror spectacular based on a Capcom video game (!), one that indirectly segued into the Resident Evil franchise (!!), and it was produced by Tampopo director Juzo Itami (!!!). Thereafter, Kurosawa’s (no relation) career has been underwritten by straight horror, or generic material with vague, horror-ish fringes, like Tokyo Sonata and his Yakuza films. For Doppelganger, the assembly appears consistent with what’s come before it, as do the ingredients: dank, warehouse enclosures opening up to devouring forests, freaky supernatural business, and Kôji Yakusho in a central role. (That is, two central roles.) Without undoing the stitching, Kurosawa also adds prankish, punkish humor to the mix (as well as a Raiders of the Lost Ark hat tip!), resulting in one of his purest, giddiest entertainments.
21. Caught (Max Ophüls), Apache Drums (Hugo Fregonese), and the adventures in the land of “no cover art”
Have we gone full circle? There once was a time when, if you went into a wine bar on the Upper East Side and casually whispered that Alfred Hitchcock was an artist, Stanley Kramer would come up behind you and smash a bottle of Zinfandel over your head. Then, as the 1960s and ’70s wore on, it gradually became permissible, even worthwhile, to talk about film directors in the same lofty terms originally reserved for the great painters, writers, and composers. Looking at many of the catalog titles Netflix has available on Instant, you would think we were still living in the old days. While Criterion’s artful covers, as well as those of Warner Brothers and some of the other labels, makes it hard to deny the fact that “some of this stuff is art,” there remains a vast holding of titles that weren’t so lucky, that didn’t get a release on DVD (or, quite possibly, VHS), and appear on the site resembling something from an unrendered space between dime novels and stolen books. In this ether of titles, however, riches await: try the Ophüls, but also try looking for films by John H. Auer, Hugo Fregonese, Jacques Tourneur, George Sherman, Edward L. Cahn, William Seiter, Robert Aldrich, Gerd Oswald, and Charles Marquis Warren, just to name a few. We’ll have more for you when you’re through with those.
In ten days’ time: #20-11