Netflix’s Best Original Movies: December 2021 Edition
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog.
Photo: KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX
With awards season upon us, Netflix is finishing the year strong by publicly unveiling the selections they’ve trotted around the festival circuit for the past few months. Such high-prestige Oscar contenders as Jane Campion’s triumphant comeback oater and another staggering vision of lust for life from Paolo Sorrentino (already Italy’s submission for the foreign-language Academy Award) class up the joint in the first half of December, soon to be joined by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s well-feted directorial debut and an in-your-face climate change satire from Adam McKay. And that still leaves room for the Spanish locked-room thriller about the pair of petrified strangers sewn together at the torso. Whatever might tickle your fancy, you’ll find it in this month’s lineup of original film releases — read on for a breakdown of the best.
Who does Jane Campion think she is, taking twelve years off from feature directing to do TV and then waltzing back into the world of film with a stone-cold masterpiece like she never went anywhere? She’s at the height of her considerable powers in this queer Western, bringing a newfound visual majesty (thanks in part to godly cinematography from Ari Wegner) to her career-long interrogation of eroticism and how it’s distorted by sensitive male egos. Benedict Cumberbatch is Phil, an embittered, closeted cowpoke mourning his deceased lover; Kodi Smit-McPhee is the youngster he channels his self-loathing onto before taking under his wing; Kirsten Dunst is the boy’s mother, allaying her concern with booze; and Jesse Plemons is caught in the middle as her husband and Phil’s brother. They all give career-best showings under Campion’s expert tutelage, conveying the raging infernos of repressed desire that the setting won’t allow them to speak aloud.
Italy’s maximalist extraordinaire Paolo Sorrentino goes back to his roots with this künstlerroman coming-of-age picture recounting one pivotal summer in Naples. His stand-in is the angular teen Fabietto (Filippo Scotti, a talent bound to rise quickly after his fine showing here), whose family’s sun-drenched villa is upended by three massive developments: superstar footballer Diego Maradona getting traded to Napoli, a filmmaker in the mold of Fellini coming to shoot his new movie in town, and the arrival of Fabietto’s gorgeous, unwell aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). His head swimming with lust and cinephilia, the kid stumbles from one revelatory experience to the next, most involving his big, boisterous family. Along the way, he gains a sense of direction and dips a toe into the waters of adult sexuality in a memorable scene that’s extremely — what’s the word? — European. Crackling with passion and self-effacing humor, it’s Sorrentino’s strongest work in nearly a decade.
You’d have to be a real grinch to deny that there’s some morsel of charm to a film with the good sense to cast Jennifer Coolidge as a kooky aunt. But in this reverse Happiest Season — rather than a same-sex couple pretending to be galpals to appease conservative parents, it’s two gay friends (Michael Urie and Philemon Chambers) making like they’re coupled up to satisfy open-minded parents — the gifts are few and far between. Every stale rom-com convention (oh, look, a soulful old man with a shop that needs painting!) gets trotted out with nothing fresh but the demographic, and while there’s an argument to be made that queer romantics deserve the same middling Yuletide courtships heterosexuals have had for years, there’s also an argument to be made that everyone deserves more. Urie and Chambres may be an innately winning couple, but the dialogue stuck in their mouths like hardened Christmas fruitcake can’t keep pace with their natural chemistry.
Once at the forefront of the Thai New Wave, director Wisit Sasanatieng still excels even when plugged into Netflix and assigned a Wan-influenced haunted-house horror. A pair of high schoolers — brother Putt (Nattapat Nimjirawat) and sister Pim (Sutatta Udomsilp) — go to stay with their grandparents while Mom’s recuperating from a car crash in the ICU, and as is the case with most young people’s visits to the elderly, the kids find everything different in a weird way. Except this isn’t a matter of odd smells and uncomfortable chairs; a small peep hole in the living room wall offers Putt a glimpse at what looks like a decomposing parallel universe. The eventual clarification of what lies behind this divide and the significance it has to the family’s morbid history more than justifies its hefty run time. Even if it didn’t, Sasanatieng also mines all the psychological symbolism he can from this charged narrative device, landing somewhere in the id-baiting neighborhood of “Being John Malkovich in Hell,” minus the meta.
There’s something kind of perverse about combining ’90s punk nostalgia with a cutesy, kid-friendly comedy that emphasizes the vital importance of friendship and family, but writer Stacey Menear mostly makes it work by nailing the particulars of music fandom. We’re in alternative culture hub Spokane, WA, in the lead-up to Y2K, and plucky tween Beverly (Gemma Brooke Allen) has just discovered the mixtape her teen mom made for her dad before they both perished in a car crash all those years ago. The cassette goes kablooey, but she’s still got the playlist, sending her on a mission to track down these tracks in a pre-Spotify world. Menear’s script can talk the talk and walk the walk, name-dropping Girls at Our Best, The Quick, and the Blue Hearts with an awareness of what those acts signify. Moreover, she understands and respects the labor once required of crate-diggers, clearly enamored of the unique record-store atmosphere replicated credibly here. It’s enough to tamp down the sticky sentiment of the story at hand, told as it is in chirpy one-liners.
For her first role in the three years since Bird Box, Sandra Bullock returns to Netflix for a bleak character study of a sinner trying to make good. As ex-con Ruth, fresh out of prison for killing the cop that tried to evict her and her younger sister Katie (Aisling Franciosi, underused) when they were just little orphans a couple decades ago, she wants to start over and make inroads with the sibling who doesn’t even remember Ruth exists. But there’s also a romantic subplot with a strapping coworker (Jon Bernthal) at her construction gig, and a subplot about earning the respect of Katie’s adoptive parents (Richard Thomas and Lina Emond), and a subplot about the dead officer’s vengeful sons (Tom Guiry and Will Pullen), and a subplot with the new inhabitants of Ruth’s girlhood home (Viola Davis and Vincent D’Onofrio). It’s altogether far too much clutter for a portrait that would be more effective with some room to breathe, letting Bullock really dig her incisors into the role instead of being hustled from one contrivance to the next.
From Spanish sicko Mar Targarona comes this fine addition to the canon of People Stuck To Things cinema, joining the sadistic likes of Saw and Netflix’s own Gerald’s Game. Except Sara (Marina Gatell) and David (Pablo Derqui) aren’t chained to a pipe or a bed, but each other! They wake up to find that their torsos have been sewn together by some unseen psychopath, a real pickle they must use their wits and limited mobility to escape. In this film’s shrewd sixty-seven minutes, Targarona takes this premise as far as it can go and then excuses himself at just the right time, before we can think too hard about the spectacularly idiotic explanation for Sara and David’s fleshy predicament. It doesn’t commit to the bit with the stomach-turning brio of Human Centipede, but it’s more vividly realized and tactfully unloaded than most of Netflix’s horror cheapies.