Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: A Year in Review

It was an eventful year both on Netflix and here at What's On NETFLIX Now?, with lots of choice movies coming and going (many of them more than once). For less thorough readers and those who only discovered this blog in recent months, I thought it would be fun to recount some of 2014's highlights, not only to give an idea of what you missed but to show what's still available to explore—both on Netflix and on the backpages of this site. I'll also try to provide some insight into what's ahead in 2015 (depressing though it may seem)...

Altman's 3 Women
JANUARY 2014 saw an impressive influx of new titles following a pretty dismal December, including rarities like Robert Altman's 3 Women and indispensable classics like Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot and The Apartment—both of which have unfortunately expired (though I'm happy to report the latter is set to return in January 2015). Standalone reviews covered an obscure, oddly charming 1972 comedy, The Public Eye, from director Carol Reed, and Megan Griffith's effective, low-key thriller, Abduction of Eden, loosely based on the true story of a woman kidnapped into a human trafficking ring.

FEBRUARY marked the site's first significant bump in readership thanks to a highly ranked post on Reddit, with monthly hits more than tripling. This prompted a look back on the blog's philosophy and some of what had come before (a post I may need to revisit myself, since I feel I may be wandering a bit from my original purpose). The month was also notable for an influx of excellent 1970s flicks, four of which received short reviews, although three of those later expired—as is so often the case on Netflix these days. Another film, 1974's Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, merited its own full review, mostly because I've always had a soft spot for car chase movies of the early 1970s. February also saw the passing of writer/director Harold Ramis, a true mensch of 1980s and '90s comedy, along with the loss of a number of notable French films, including two starring French heartthrobs Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. One of those, 1962's A Woman Is a Woman, represented Jean-Luc Godard's lone entry on Netflix.

Pacino directs
In MARCH, as if to make up for those losses while emphasizing its growing 1970s cred, Netflix added a clutch of Robert Altman films—most of which, alas, have expired, but what a cinematic feast they represented while they lasted. Important films by Lumet, Kubrick, Scorsese, and Gilliam also arrived, lending real heft to the month's releases and bringing smiles to the faces of hardcore cinefiles. And then there was the streaming debut of the much-talked-about Blue Is the Warmest Color, a Cannes Palm d'Or winner in 2013 and an emotional (and sexual) epic that justifies every minute of its three-hour running time. Too bad the month had to end with the expirations of Sunset Boulevard, Catch-22, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Megan Griffith's debut feature, The Off Hours.

APRIL continued the trend of beefing up Instant's back catalog, with Marilyn Monroe titles inflating (temporarily) to nine, a couple of new Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee films, and more Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies than you could shake a nine-millimeter Uzi—or boxing glove—at. This marked the first appearance of all the original Rocky movies on Netflix, which would subsequently expire, then return, before expiring again on December 31 (I'm exhausted just writing about it). Sadly, the month also saw the expiration of a handful of important '70s flicks, as well as 1941's The Lady Eve—the only title available by comedy genius Preston Sturges—and Al Pacino's insightful and entertaining take on Shakespeare, Looking for Richard.

MAY brought lots of zeitgeisty 1980s and '90s titles (The Big Chill, Starman, Single White Female, Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump), along with a boatload of Toho's Godzilla flicks and the year's first glimpse at the moving target that is the James Bond films. I was personally excited to see the return of Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon, one of my all-time faves (now expired), and found myself losing my head for Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, the second season of which later arrived (and which I still need to watch).

Paul Mazursky, 1930-2014
JUNE went big, debuting two notorious (and underrated) comedy bombs, Elaine May's Ishtar and Steven Spielberg's 1941, both of which were spotlighted along with Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, Howard Hawks' El Dorado, and the perversely brilliant The Triplets of Belleville. Three more Altman films also showed up, along with a defining 1970s flick, Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces. But except for Triplets, every one of those titles has since expired, reinforcing the dispiriting fickleness Netflix demonstrated this year, something I elaborated on at month's end. The last day of June brought even more bad news: the death of Paul Mazursky, a filmmaker whose work I've admired since my first college years, and whose films Blume in Love, An Unmarried Woman, Moscow on the Hudson, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills were particular favorites. I'd fully planned to memorialize him here, but a technical glitch erased the work-in-progress, and I just didn't have it in me to start over from scratch. Rest in peace, Paul. The humanity and humor of your characters is missed more than ever.

JULY started with your humble reporter a bit slow on the uptake (it was a lazy summer), but eventually I was able to wrap my head around what turned out to be a truly impressive batch of new titles. That wide-ranging roundup was joined by standalone reviews of the neat little indie, Stuck Between Stations (which is not the gay drama Netflix seems to believe it is), and the surprisingly decent '80s sci-fi flick, The Final Countdown, which unfortunately expired but is worth a watch the next time it lands on your radar. That was joined by a number of other painful expirations, including Paper Moon, Donnie Brasco, and Easy Rider, none of which have returned.

The Fisher King
AUGUST was, like June, another month of deaths both literal and streaming. Not only did we lose actor/comedian Robin Williams—about whom I related a personal anecdote—but also one of his best films, The Fisher King; two more Billy Wilder movies; and a unbelievable nine films by Robert Altman. But that was only adding insult to injury, as earlier in the month Netflix erased over a dozen indie and foreign films without prior warning—something that was dangerously unprecedented. If we can't depend on the one-week warnings in our online queues, what can we depend on? Also expiring were the provocative, overlooked Agora, the slow-motion Nazi train wreck of Downfall, and Christopher Nolan's brilliant Memento; while a standalone review was reserved for the charming time-travel indie, Safety Not Guaranteed. With all that bad news, it became tough to remember what had debuted at the beginning of the month, even with such notable entries as The Longest Day, Mad Max, Pumping Iron, and Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac. One bright spot was Lynn Shelton's indie comedy, Touchy Feely, which merited a proper shout-out even if it wasn't quite as good as her previous film, Your Sister's Sister (which came online a few weeks later).

Battlestar Galactica: gone but not forgotten
SEPTEMBER brought some welcome returning titles, a lot of good recent movies (hello, Silver Linings Playbook and All Is Lost), and an impressive number of new TV seasons, many scheduled to debut throughout the month in a staggered pattern that now seems to be the norm. Some long overdue recognition was given to John Cassavetes' raucous '70s rom-com, Minnie & Moskowitz (since expired), while the countdown began for the 9/30 expiration of the great sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica. This turned out to be the blog's most popular article (by a significant amount), getting referred to by many larger sites and paving the way for a banner month in readership. Not even the crushing familiarity of September's other expiring titles, about which I waxed philosophical, could dim the flames of enthusiasm, which finally inspired WoNN's very own Twitter account. It also seemed a good time to start experimenting with some (minimal) advertising, as the site officially became an Amazon Associate (in other words: please use the search box on the right to buy stuff).

OCTOBER was off to a great start, with the blog featured in a news story on Twin Cities Live that brought in all sorts of new readers. Meanwhile, so many titles arrived this month, they had to be broken up into two posts: the Woody Allen movies and everything else. This also marked the third month in a row with a section devoted to family films—an area I'll continue to cover as the situation demands. I couldn't wait to give a big thumbs-up to the debut of Lake Bell's very funny In a World, while in the spirit of Halloween it seemed appropriate to spotlight a few notable horror movies (but only ones from other countries). It's just too bad Netflix took the holiday literally and cast a black spell over so many of its better movies, eliminating a swath of 1980s faves, classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and some notable sci-fi that included Silent Running and (gasp!) Joss Whedon's Serenity (thankfully the Firefly series remained available).

The dark insanity that is Snowpiercer
NOVEMBER was an excellent month for new titles, no getting around it, with deserving spotlights thrown on two sci-fi gems, 1974's Phase IV, and this year's post-apocalyptic sleeper, Snowpiercer. Equally noteworthy: the influx of '80s and '90s classics like Stand By Me, Seven, Goodwill Hunting, Batman, and You've Got Mail—and newbies like Nebraska and Fading Gigolo. Unfortunately, this bounty turned out to be only preemptive balm for the pain to come, with a depressingly large number of good-to-great movies expiring at month's end, including a slew of sci-fi and horror, Billy Wilder's all-time classic, Double Indemnity, Warren Beatty's epic, Reds, and far too many titles from the years 1970-1982. But even this was only a preview of things to come...

Another classic bites the dust
DECEMBER. Oh, December. You began so well, delivering such holiday treats as Almost Famous, American Beauty, Runaway Train, Labyrinth, The Hustler, The Wolf of Wall Street, and even the much heralded British anthology series, Black Mirror. And how could we forget that most wonderful of holiday gifts, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist, a cinematic touchstone that helped dull the sting of losing Double Indemnity? You even brought back Saturday Night Fever, a handful of James Bond flicks, and those Francis Ford Coppola movies that keep popping on and off Instant every few months. But then...then came that great sucking sound of over 120 titles readying to vanish into the streaming ether. Duck Soup, Neflix? All but two Woody Allen movies? Over two dozen genuine classics from before 1980, sixteen of those from before 1970? How could you? Even with the long list of titles scheduled to appear in January, this did not bode well, not well at all...

In fact it's managed to squelch some of the joy out of reaching a record number of readers this month (thanks to a fortuitous mention in The Verge)—even while the blog's subscribers and Twitter followers multiply at an unprecedented rate. Also multiplying: the number of contributors to the site's monthly expiration list, which has grown to become the most thorough—and fact-checked—source for expiring Netflix titles on the Internet. To all of you (especially Lisa, the two Brians, and you recurring Anonymouses), I give my thanks. It's been fun probing the quirks of the Netflix interface together and figuring out the best ways to determine what's actually leaving (and when).

The Year Ahead

As far as what to expect in 2015, I'll continue to do my best to track the ups and downs of the Instant streaming library. The optimist in me wants to believe Netflix will see the perceived value of maintaining its back catalog, especially its classics. But when I see all the new, original programming the company is investing in (understandable given that three quarters of streaming is TV shows) and hear of its plans to shift content toward higher-rated and exclusive titles with "a little bit less depth" (according to CFO David Wells)—I feel like the great fracturing of content across the web has truly begun.

I won't be surprised if by the end of next year we're subscribing to three or four different services to get the mix of entertainment we desire: Netflix and Amazon Prime for their breadth of older series, movies, and original content; Hulu+ for currently airing TV shows and Criterion films; Warner Archive Instant for its rapidly growing collection of classics; HBO Go for all things HBO; and any other networks and services who choose to join the fray. As many tech writers have pointed out this year, the shared dream of a repository for every movie and TV show ever made, available on demand, is very quickly crashing onto the rocks of corporate reality.

That's my biggest gripe with exclusive streaming deals (original content aside): it doesn't serve those of us who actually pay to watch this stuff, and ultimately amounts to a greedy land-grab by streaming sites and content owners to make sure we pledge our viewing fealty to as many of them as we can afford. After all, along with the inconvenience their strategy entails, it means the longtime cord-cutters among us will inevitably be facing monthly streaming costs that approach the extortionate cable bills we've adamantly tried to avoid. The upside: we get to watch what we want, when we want it, and (with the exception of Hulu) commercial-free. But the downside is the increased splintering of streaming content into more and more specialized "channels"—something else we hoped to avoid when we first cut the cord and took our eyeballs online.

The Netflix of a year from now may look very different from the one we know today. It will likely have far fewer pre-1980 classics and far more original series and movies, much of which I'm sure will be worth viewing (I'm looking forward to the Marvel shows as much as I'm dreading the Adam Sandler movies). Will it offer enough variety of content, undiscovered indies, and obscure classics to warrant WoNN's continued existence? Let's hope so. In the meantime, I plan to enjoy what's still available and share as much of the good stuff as I can. Thanks for your interest and support in 2014, and have a happy (streaming) New Year!



ausworkshop said...

Thanks. I appreciate your work and enjoy reading. Looking forward to see what you write about in the new year.

stevenglassman said...

I've been reading for a few months, and I thoroughly enjoy your work. Happy new year, David.

Patrick said...

This blog is amazing. Thank you for the amazing write-ups.

Unknown said...

Well that is promising, I hope you are right. I am tired of the "classic" movies that predate my existence by 20 years (and I am no spring chicken). There needs to be some new movie movement each month and by that I mean they need to add some meat and potatoes to the list, maybe something that actually grossed the top 10 in the last 10 years. Avengers was good, sorry to see that go. Thor could have stayed a bit longer, and WHERE are the rom-coms?! Is there a hate relationship with Jim Carrey? He did some goofy stuff that never seems to make it to Netflix. Is it all based on the studios? I dropped my membership about a year and a half ago because there wasn't any new blood on Netflix. I hope that it picks up. Thanks for the updates.

David Speranza said...

Thanks for the nice comments, everyone, and for helping push December's page views up to 100K--a new record. :-)

Just visiting said...

It appear as thought Netflix has us right where they want us. Waiting for competition at an affordable price.