I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the most critically acclaimed film of the year was just, like, dropped last weekend. On Netflix.
Alfonso Cuarón‘s long-gestating followup to Gravity has absolutely nothing you’d normally look for in a Netflix Original. It’s genuine arthouse; it’s subtitled, at least for non-Spanish speakers; it’s in black and white, for chrissakes. If that’s unusual, the real surprise is that Roma is only the peak of an absolute banner year for Netflix’s original feature films.
The company’s been on a roll with their documentaries for a while; finally, the rest of their content’s catching up, with an explosion of arthouse-y, auteur-friendly fare. There’s a clear cynical interpretation of this: Oscars. If you target new films by the likes of Tamara Jenkins (Private Life), the Coen brothers (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and indeed Cuarón, you’re more likely than not to convert abstract critical goodwill into cold, hard awards. All of which provides the one thing Netflix is yet to obtain despite countless false dawns and confident noises: prestige.
It’s easy to forget 2015. It’s like remembering the key moments of 1938, or 1065; some interesting things probably happened, but they ended up a bit overshadowed. For followers of contemporary cinema, October 16 of that year is every bit as important and decisive a moment as 2016 would prove for politics: it was the release date of Netflix’s first original feature film, Beasts of No Nation.
The streaming service had, of course, been a major disruptor for a number of years – but only really in TV. With their fiendishly addictive autoplay interface, the finale of the biggest show in the world, Breaking Bad, and the groundbreaking premiere of House of Cards, 2013 marked the moment they stepped up to rule the TV world.
Films were a different breed. Netflix’s autoplay was worthless here, and there was simply too much competition from studios and distributors for them to gain a foothold at first. Netflix had been streaming a mixed bag of reliable hits and studio rejects for years, but they were still essentially a video rental store – one which, no matter how exciting and convenient, was technically very limited. Hardly a great look for a corporate identity built around flashy, industry-altering innovation.
Beasts of No Nation was the moment Netflix tried to turn the tide. Not only were they entering into the exclusive distribution market, but they were aiming high with a “serious” film they hoped would challenge for awards success. As a sheer gesture of self-confidence, it was certainly up there.
Ultimately, Beasts earned Netflix good-to-middling reviews and a handful of nominations for Idris Elba at the Golden Globes, SAGs and BAFTAs, but it failed to ignite the film revolution they were hoping for. The company plugged away for the next few years, releasing the kind of movies that looked like they could top box offices or win awards on paper, but in reality, this rarely proved to be the case.
This year, somehow, everything changed. First, 2017’s Mudbound scored some prominent Oscar nominations (two went to Mary J. Blige!). Icarus finally netted the company the Best Documentary Feature award. Then Paramount gave it Annihilation. Then came the announcement that Netflix – Netflix! – had won exclusive rights to Orson Welles’ final film, the ultimate cineaste grail. Oh, sure, 2018’s first quarter gave us the usual guff, from Irreplaceable You to When We First Met, but months down the line this is perfectly fine. While we’ve still been served the sort of less prestigious content the service had previously built itself on, now it’s become part of an honest-to-god range.
High-profile turkeys like The Cloverfield Paradox and Mute no longer imply an instant correlation between Netflix distribution and the old “straight to home video” death knell; nor, indeed, do the parade of fine but forgettable rom-coms and Christmas movies. If Netflix’s 2017 output felt defined by flukes and high-quality one-offs (Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories, Mudbound) among a sea of forgettable mediocrities and outright crap (I will never forgive the team behind War Machine), 2018 has brought an absolute bounty of genuine corkers, with high enough output to make the likes of A24 and Annapurna blush.
Half of this may still be pure fluke. Some of the finer, or at least more interesting, films of this year have followed usual Netflix themes: the confident genre pictures Calibre, Cargo, Cam and Apostle are perhaps of a piece with previous hits Wheelman, Gerald’s Game and even arguably Beasts of No Nation. “Lighter” fare such as Alex Strangelove, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Been So Long and Set it Up are also clearly on a recognisable Netflix-y continuum: kinda solid, comfort-watching, easygoing (desperately trying to avoid the word “chill” here).
So the “fluke” theory would make sense – just because the above films happen to be pretty good doesn’t mean the strategy’s improved. The worst thing about Netflix since Beasts has been its all-or-nothing approach to distribution. By waging war with cinemas and giving its flagship content little to no theatrical release, the company make a very clear statement: there’s only one place to watch these films, and it’s on Netflix. But finally, as of 2018, it’s transforming that mercenary approach from major flaw to its greatest strength.
As the stable of older or classic films is shrunk in order to make way for original content, Netflix is slowly succeeding in making its name synonymous with a simple ethos: something for everyone. In the past that would have made the company jack of all trades, master of none; now, after a few years’ trial and error it’s become a formula.
It’s taken a period defined more by Adam Sandler and iffy Sundance buy-ups than anything else, but the Netflix range now boasts the likes of Nicole Holofcener’s The Land of Steady Habits, David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King and Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark – all interesting, different and relatively prestigious – alongside something like Sandler’s very Sandler-y The Week Of. Outside the major studios, which other distributors are bothering to put out Like Father the same year they’ve got Paul Greengrass’ 22 July or Andy Serkis’ embattled Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle?
Certainly not the competition. Amazon Studios has perhaps a better hit-rate – and beat Netflix to the non-Documentary Oscar races with Manchester by the Sea – but the range isn’t the same. Netflix’s 2018 shouldn’t just be defined by being surprisingly good; we should look at their recent feature film output, the sublime and the ridiculous alike, and consider – as the company forced us to do back in the Spring – whether their real innovation as a film company is simply in re-democratising consumption.
2019 looks to be more of the same: Netflix, ever after a bargain, will likely be a prominent buyer at Sundance, for instance, but the famously coy company also has its largest pre-announced roster yet. On the slate are new films from previous Netflix collaborators Dee Rees and David Michôd, proven talents J.C. Chandor, Liz Garbus and Wash Westmoreland, and even the release of Martin Scorsese’s much-hyped The Irishman. This is in addition to big steps into mainstream, studio-style fare with Amy Poehler’s directing debut, two films from Steven Soderbergh, a sequel to Bright and, finally, madly, the new film from Michael Bay.
It’ll be fascinating to see, given their fluctuating financial situation, whether Netflix can sustain this new life as a playground for indie nuts, casual browsers and blockbuster-heads alike, but for now their broad base seems sound. Either way, after a year as good as 2018, the distributor’s future looks surprisingly Bright 2.