Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: A Year in Review

It was a pretty eventful year on Netflix Instant and here at What's On NETFLIX Now?, with lots of good movies coming and going (many of them more than once). For less thorough readers and those who only discovered the 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 (although I'm happy to report that the latter will be returning 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 following 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, mainly 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.

Friday, December 19, 2014

December Expiration Watch: A Great Sucking Sound

There's no getting around it: things this month look grim. I can barely keep up with all the new titles being added daily to the 12/31 body count. Of course, you could argue that it's the end of the year and things looked bad last year, too. You'd only be partly right. Over 60 expiring titles made the list then—a big number, for sure, but one that was mostly offset by a strong January and the eventual return of 15 of those titles.

But this year is undeniably worse. Over 120 titles are on the list this time—including nearly double the number of pre-1970 classics—plus 14 Woody Allen films (essentially wiping out the director's streaming catalog). Sure, Netflix could add an equivalent number of worthy films in the new year, but based on past experience, the paltry mix announced so far, and the company's increasing emphasis on original TV series over classic movies, I'm not getting my hopes up.

Some other interesting numbers: of the 120+ titles about to expire, 25 arrived in October (i.e., had three-month contracts), half of which were Allen films. Another 17 showed up in January, suggesting one-year contracts that are now ending. These were predominantly 1970s and Roger Corman flicks, so with any luck they'll be renewed in the coming year.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Finding Perfection: THE CONFORMIST

I admit to having little objectivity when it comes to Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 masterpiece, The Conformist. To me it's always been one of those textbook films, right up there with Citizen Kane and Breathless in terms of cinematic achievement. That may be in part due to being introduced to it in a college directing class, where its scenes were dissected and held up as exemplars of filmmaking artistry. In the years after film school I even became mildly obsessed with it, treasuring my VHS copy of the laser disc (this was the '80s) and regularly studying that dubbed, cropped presentation with the fervid eyes of an acolyte.


After a recent viewing on Netflix (yes, I also own the DVD), I still think The Conformist is pretty amazing. And while its ambiguities, classical pacing, and nonlinear plot may not be for everyone, the gorgeous expressionist imagery (courtesy of Vittorio Storaro), beautifully shot actresses—in their beautifully made clothes—combined with Georges Delerue's sweeping score make it a treat for the eyes and ears, even if you're not always sure what's going on.

Friday, December 5, 2014

New in December: Cinematic Holiday Treats

December's incoming titles make for a satisfying mix of the new and returning, with a number of genuine standouts that haven't been seen on Netflix (or not seen for a long time, anyway). Directors such as David Fincher, Michael Mann, Peter Weir, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Cameron Crowe, and Robert Rossen are represented, as is a certain superspy by the name of Bond, James Bond.

Add in a dash of Paul Newman, a pinch of Will Smith, and a spoonful or two of Jim Carrey, David Bowie, and James Caan, with a garnish of Jo(h)ns—Wayne, Travolta, and Voight—and you've got some tasty treats of cinematic goodness. Where are the women, you ask? Good question. Among the better titles, there's Jodie Foster, Jennifer Connelly, and Charlize Theron, but most of the films with strong female leads fall decidedly in the crappy category (yes, Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, and Shelly Long, I'm talkin' to you).

The Thoroughbreds

Almost Famous
An ode to 1970s rock and roll, Cameron Crowe's autobiographical Almost Famous (2000) is the writer-director's most personal film, even beyond its status as a fictionalized account of Crowe's early years as a teen rock journalist for Rolling Stone. While (convincingly) portraying a very specific time and place in his young existence—life on the road with a Led Zeppelin-like rock band—Almost Famous is also a kind of looking glass into everything Crowe was to do as a filmmaker in the years to come, shining a light into the soul of a man whose sentiments and musical taste would enrich such films as Fast Times at Ridgmont High, Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and even the underrated Elizabethtown.

The film abounds with humor, charm, and Crowe's distinctive sense of humanity, not to mention a killer classic rock soundtrack (authentically enhanced by Nancy Wilson's era-appropriate originals) and a cast to die for—starting with the young Patrick Fugit, whose ingenuous performance holds its own with those of Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. That's to say nothing of Kate Hudson's luminous turn as Penny Lane, still considered her defining performance (even after so many bad rom-coms), or the very funny Jason Lee as the fictional band Stillwater's insecure frontman. If this theatrical version of Almost Famous feels slightly lumpy and truncated (the longer, "Bootleg" cut provides some needed breathing room), there's no denying the film's warm, beating, nostalgic heart.