It used to be the case that any movie that bypassed cinemas had a certain stink on it. It was hard not to see them as compromised in some way. Either too indie to garner a theatrical audience or too crummy to generate enough excitement. Or even worse, a TV movie.
The rise of digital on demand services has changed all that, and although the market has several major players, Netflix led the charge in terms of bringing A-level movie talent and budgets to a model not focused on theatrical exhibition.
They famously signed Adam Sandler to a multi-picture deal, acquired Oscar contender Beasts of No Nation, and are behind the upcoming big-budget Will Smith/Joel Edgerton fantasy action thriller Bright.
While these higher profile Netflix movies are often granted a limited theatrical run, there are plenty of other movies the company produces that go straight onto the platform.
For the most part, they tend to have a bit more going for them than the average straight-to-DVD movie. Which you would struggle to say about a lot of the Z-level dreck that fills out Netflix's movie library.
Now that the straight-to-home entertainment movie market has begun to outgrow the stigma that defined it for decades, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at five recently-released Netflix Original Movies, some of which premiered at film festivals before Netflix acquired them, and some of which were projects generated 'in house'.
The company's infamously deep pockets have resulted in a lot of amazing television that we may not otherwise have been exposed to, but what are they bringing to contemporary genre cinema?
James Wolk (Mad Men, Zoo) and Caitlyn FitzGerald (Masters of Sex) star in this thriller about two sets of half-brothers who come to blows when they return to the family home to watch their mother die. The film spends its first third slowly ratcheting up the drama then unleashes a nimbly executed siege scenario with a couple of surprises. The familial conflicts it sets up are so pronounced that their subversion feels a touch inevitable, but the film is well-crafted and benefits from the time it spends to establish a grounded domestic tone.
This film's writer/director Chris Sparling, who wrote the acclaimed Ryan Reynolds thriller Buried (2010), spoke recently on the awesome Scriptnotes podcast about how if it weren't for Netflix, this film probably wouldn't have been made. It's nice that they're backing emerging genre talent like Sparling, but the world wouldn't have suffered too much if this movie didn't exist.
True Memoirs of an International Assassin
Kevin James (The King of Queens, Hitch) isn't for everybody, but I freaking love him. He leads this endearingly idiotic comedy as an aspiring spy fiction writer who is mistaken by Venezuelan rebels (led by a game Andy Garcia) for an actual assassin, and roped into a plot to overthrow the country's puppet president (an absolutely hilarious Kim Coates).
Even amongst the recent surfeit of spy spoofs, this is a lot fun, thanks principally to James' spry comedic talents, both verbal and physical. Fondly reminiscent of cynical '80s comedies like Spies Like Us and Moon Over Parador, this movie won't change anyone's life, but it's a nice showcase for James' classic comedy chops, and a must-see for anyone susceptible to them.
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
Osgood Perkins, the son of screen legend Anthony (Psycho), wrote and directed this stunningly beautiful horror film, and in doing so marks himself as a genre talent to keep a very close eye on. The film is so delicately and artfully composed, it's akin to the kind of horror you might imagine Wes Anderson making. Ruth Wilson (The Affair) stars as a nurse who takes a job looking after an elderly horror novelist (the legendary Paula Prentiss) in a house that may or may not be haunted.
Ambiguous and weird in ways that far too few mainstream horror films are, it's difficult to picture this garnering a wide audience in theatres, but seems right at home on Netflix. It's an encouraging example of the platform fulfilling a cinematic niche not otherwise served, and bodes well for the future potential of their in-house films. Also, is that not one of the coolest movie titles ever?
A great example of Netflix providing an outlet for a beloved filmmaker who's work isn't especially multiplex friendly, Mascots is the latest mockumentary from Christopher Guest (Best In Show, A Mighty Wind). Despite the set-up - a sporting mascot competition - feeling a little on the nose for Guest, he makes more than a meal out of the setting, delivering one of his funniest movies, a huge improvement on For Your Consideration (2006), his last theatrical release.
Pretty much all the stalwart Guest players show up and are in fine form, with new addition Tom Bennett (who was fantastic earlier this year in Love & Friendship) perhaps shining the brightest. Guest even puts in a welcome extended cameo as Corky St Clair, the small town theatre maestro he played in Waiting For Guffman. And Spinal Tap fans should get a thrill seeing Ed Begley Jr air drum along to a rock song during one of the many kind of amazing mascot performances.
Underrated actor Fran Kranz, the secret stoner weapon in Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods stars in this mysterious thriller that starts out feeling like a mash up of The Game (1997) and Fight Club (2000) by way of a Tony Robbins infomercial, then gets even weirder from there, amusingly so. Kranz plays an office drone who gets invited to what appears to be some kind of motivational seminar by an old college pal played by the great Adam Goldberg (Dazed & Confused).
Writer/director Karl Mueller (co-writer of the relentlessly grim 2011 apocalypse drama The Divide) demonstrates a welcome proclivity for ideas-driven, economical genre storytelling, but Kranz deserves a lot of credit for holding it all together, he's freaking great. Also Laura Palmer shows up.