Netflix gems from the year just passed

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So there’s this new thing called Netflix.  Heard of it?  Apparently you can find an amazing mix of movies, all on demand.  But many of the most recent releases aren’t available for years down the road. Those newer films you do find on Netflix are usually there in an attempt to build the hype they didn’t find at the box office.  Does this mean they were bad films?  Absolutely not.  Take a look at some of the best releases from last year now available on demand, boot up your Netflix account, and give them a try.

 MV5BNzQ0NDA1ODQ3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjQwMzk0OA@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_The Act of Killing

 4 out of 4 stars

The Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing completely breaks the mold with a unique, engrossing approach to non-fiction.  Ex-paramilitary involved in the mass killings in 1965 Indonesia are challenged to recreate the atrocities they committed as part of a feature length film they will make themselves.  An insightful commentary on the impact of Western entertainment on the third world, this riveting, powerful piece from Joshua Oppenheimer finds the true inner life of these men and the ghosts that have followed them throughout their lives.


3 out of 4 stars

Moving and enlightening, Blackfish takes a look at the treatment of killer whales in ocean-themed parks around the world through the words of former park employees.  Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite never uses the shocking footage for emotional manipulation, and instead uses it intelligently to find compassion and truth about the animals that have become one of the most recognizable icons of pop culture: Shamu.

Cutie and the Boxer

3 out of 4 stars

Surprise, surprise.  Another documentary!  Oscar nominee Cutie and the Boxer is a heartwrenching, candidly honest snapshot of the lives of experimental sculptor Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko as they struggle to find a financial foothold, a renewed reputation as artists, and respect for one another.  Filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling documents a poignant story about the triumphs and tribulations of loving couples and the sometimes unavoidable sacrifices and consequences inherent.

Drinking Buddies

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

A breath of fresh air from the mumblecore genre, writer/director Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies features an all star cast (Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston) with unfathomable chemistry and tells a fascinating, frank story about two coworkers at a Chicago brewery.  A beautifully real piece on love and friendship, this comedy takes turns you don’t ever expect it to and keeps you rooting for every single person on screen, warts and all.

images (7)Frances Ha

3 out of 4 stars

The delightful Greta Gerwig teams up with invaluable director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) to create a sly, quirky comedy about a young woman struggling to get her life together in present day New York.  Well cast and directed with a subtle tip of the hat to the French New Wave, the film makes observations about living as a twenty-something in today’s world and the struggles and sacrifices that have just recently become the norm.

Shadow Dancer

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

A deliberately-paced thriller based on screenwriter Tom Bradby’s own novel, Shadow Dancer follows Collette, a young Irish woman born into the IRA, as she is arrested by MI5 and given the opportunity to work for them as a double agent.  Featuring strong, subtle performances from Andrea Riseborough and Clive Owen and well-directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), Shadow Dancer is a brooding, melancholy look at the casualties of the intelligence field, agents and double agents alike.

Side Effects

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

This film could have easily gone into “straight to video” territory in the wrong hands, but director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic and Behind the Candelabra) deftly handles writer Scott Z. Burns’ (Contagion) gripping ode to B-movie thrillers.  The suspenseful tale of depression is boldly led by the invaluable Rooney Mara and the third act will keep your jaw dropped from start to finish.

download (5)This Is Martin Bonner

 3 out of 4 stars

A subtle, contemplative look at a 50-something divorced father trying to restart his life after relocating to Reno and taking a job as a prison-rehab coordinator.  Paul Eenhoorn is magnetic as the title character and writer/director Chad Hartigan displays compassion and warmth for each character.

Upstream Color

4 out of 4 stars

The artsiest sci-fi film since 2001: A Space Odyssey, Shane Carruth (Primer) helms this intriguing, languid piece about a woman whose identity is quite literally stolen.  The fantastic Amy Seimetz gives a brave performance in the lead and the film is beautifully crafted in every way, particularly its stunning sound design, surreal cinematography, and mesmerizing score.