I had a great run as a Netflix subscriber, six or seven years of film exploration, one red envelope at a time. But after my Significant Other got the full FIOS package with HBO and Showtime plus Amazon Prime plus Netflix Streaming, my cable choices became so massive that I found myself taking longer and longer to watch a DVD from Netflix. The days when I could turn around two movies a week (as when I swept through Mad Men) dwindled down. And my queue was growing stale. Some genres, like Holocaust documentaries and the collected works of John Cassavetes, had been lingering there for years as French fare of the Belle de Jour type and 1950s film noir rocketed to the top. As a result, I pulled the plug
I’ll always think fondly of Netflix because it let me broaden my film knowledge. The ease of searching and suggestions for related films let me go deep in emerging interests, like French new wave, which I found I really enjoyed. Films like Jules and Jim, Breathless and Rififi were very appealing and approachable, nothing tedious or discordant. Most “art house” movies, I realized, just had subtitles. .
Looking back, several movies stand out. I’m sure I saw most on Netflix, although some might have come from the impressive international section of the Westport, Connecticut, Public Library. They’re all foreign movies. That’s not by design, simply they were the movies that took me from my daily world to places and matters far from my experience. They said something about the human condition, that’s all. Titles that stand out, with some commentary.
Alexandra, Russian. Set in Chechnya on a Russian army base, the movie follows the grandmother of the Russian commander, who comes for a visit. Her interest in and appreciation of weaponry hint at an intriguing life for her during World War II. Alexandra also shows the uneasy interactions of the Russian military with Chechen civilians. The tension builds but never goes in an easy, explosive direction. Honorable mention: Hipsters, a romantic musical comedy set in 1950s Moscow. Not quite girl-meets-tractor, but close enough.
Daughter of Keltoum, Arabic and French. A young adoptee returns from Switzerland to birth family’s home in Algeria, as she searches for her mother and family. Jolting encounters and revelations appear along the way, with sharp commentary on the social situation facing women in Algeria. Outstanding.
Mother, Korean. How far will a mother go to protect her son? This movie explores that question with plenty of twists and turns.
Owl and the Sparrow, Vietnamese. This was the last Netflix movie I saw, a romantic drama set in Ho Chi Minh City. Given the enormous role Vietnam played in U.S. history in the 1960s and 1970s, very little entertainment from that country comes here. We have plenty of U.S. novels and films, but how do the Vietnamese view their society? This is an intensely human movie that shows the universal nature of yearnings for security and love, with nobody truly bad or good.
Strike, Polish. Actress Katharina Thalbach is a force of nature in this look at the factors leading to the Solidarity labor movement in Poland. It follows the main character’s life from the 1960s on, exposing the pitiless working conditions and uncaring union bosses of the Gdask shipyards. The comic and dramatic moments of the beginning are beautifully balanced.
Ascenseur Pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), French. Director Louis Malle’s debut is a crime caper with music by Miles Davis. French crime movies, I discovered, are insanely entertaining and stylish. Breathless and Rififi are just as great.
Knife in the Water, Polish. Before Chinatown, before Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski was a gifted Polish filmmaker. Knife in the Water was his first full-length feature and it shows how highly effective films could be made in the constrained circumstances of communism. Constantly surprising, Knife in the Water gave me a feel for life behind the Iron Curtain, on a boating trip.
Z, French. You’d think a French-Algerian movie based on Greek political intrigue would be a heavy slog, but it’s not. Costa-Gavras’ 1969 thriller has a sense of humor and a driving plot, and it surprised me.
I can think of others that impressed me, like one about a young woman drawn into a kidnapping ring (Sequestro Express, maybe?), but I can’t recall the names. These are the highlights from my Netflix years. They all resonate in me and influence what I enjoy watching, when I can find the time. .