An unusually compact selection of titles comprises December’s content flood, the number of new releases not nearly parallel to those of previous months. It’s good news in a sense: shallower water makes the gold gleam brighter, and below outlined are no fewer than four of the finest films Netflix Instant has to offer its subscribers. A blend of genres so balanced as to seem almost intentional follows for your browsing pleasure, relatively evenly spread across the last sixty years of cinema. It’s not a great week for playing catch-up on 2012, surprisingly; with the end of the year in sight, we can expect to see many more films from the past twelve months added in the next four weeks.
The widespread popularity of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne has seen the regard of Adam West’s slip further and further away as time goes by, the latter’s campy adventures in 1966’s Batman: The Movie continuing the comic absurdity of his terrifically tongue-in-cheek television escapades. Burton’s 1989 Warner Bros. franchise-starter is all too often regarded as “the first Batman movie”; where are we as a species if we can manage to forget the caped crusader’s first feature film outing? Infamous for its array of utterly inane gadgets—“Hand down the shark-repellent Batspray!”—eccentric assemblage of iconic villains—including Cesar Romero, perpetually moustachioed beneath his Joker makeup—and beautifully barmy succession of noble porpoises and oversized bombs, the ’66 Batman is nothing short of a comic masterwork, lampooning the ludicrousness of superhero movies so far ahead of its time it’s often misinterpreted as unintentionally funny. Forget The Dark Knight: this is the best Batman ever made. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The film for which Michael Moore earned Academy anointment, Bowling for Columbine begins as an analysis of the factors that led to the tragic 1999 high school massacre in the titular town before expanding outward to explore the nature of America’s gun culture and the nation’s frightening level of violent crimes in comparison to others, particularly Canada. Moore is a skilled debater, gradually constructing a tightly-woven argument that brings some very relevant and important points to bear, aided in so small measure by his awkwardly confrontational style of humour. The obvious construction behind several of his scenes does a disservice to the believability of the film, breaching the trust inherent within documentary spectatorship and thus undermining to an extent his own viewpoint. Nonetheless, Bowling for Columbine effectively and efficiently critiques the horrific gung-ho attitudes surrounding the Second Amendment, decrying and dissecting the violence inherent within a fractured, frightened society. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Disowned upon release by screenwriter David McKenna, who condemned it as “revolting, offensive and childish”, Larry Clark’s third directorial outing Bully deserves far worse than its own scribe gave it, being as it is an unconvincingly plotted, unattractively shot, indescribably awful work of borderline-paedophilic pornography. Not content to make comment of any sort with his true-life story of a band of friends who conspire to murder one of their own when his domineering behaviour begins to overpower their lives, Clark instead spends his time shoving his camera between the legs of his female leads or spinning it senselessly about in circles as his performers, devoid of rational direction or a decent story to work with, are left to haplessly act out the facetious scenarios. Not remotely tied to social critique, as those bizarrely fond of it have seen fit to claim, Bully is a despicable work of artistically incompetent trash, empty provocation in the place of any narrative or thematic content at all. UNWATCHABLE.
Nothing better illustrates the successes of Commando than a comparison to Rambo: First Blood Part II, the other major action movie release of 1985: the latter is an over-the-top escalation of utterly nonsensical violence that takes itself far too seriously; the former an over-the-top escalation of utterly nonsensical violence that takes itself for exactly the manic orgy of mayhem and destruction it is. Forced to assassinate a South American dictator when his daughter is kidnapped by a band of mercenaries, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s exquisitely named hero John Matrix employs his training as a Delta Force colonel to enact his revenge, wreaking havoc through a shopping mall and highway before bringing the entire contents of a surplus store to bear in his storming of the secret island hideout on which his child is being held. Where Rambo II tried to mesh its mad action with post-Vietnam commentary, Commando wants only to entertain with its excess: there’s no question which is the better film. WORTH WATCHING.
Arguably constituting the most significant impact Billy Wilder would leave upon the film noir genre—it is a genre, shut up—1944’s Double Indemnity is the archetypal tale of a hero’s downfall brought about by his own character failings, inherently intertwined to the post-war gynophobia of contemporary American society. A darker breed of noir, more paranoid and brooding than the wise-cracking comedy of The Maltese Falcon and Murder, My Sweet, it stars Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman who dictates his affair with wealthy housewife Barbara Stanwyck and the pair’s subsequent plan to stage her husband’s “accidental” death for the fiscal benefit of the titular bonus. Directed with precisely the panache you could expect from one of the great Hollywood directors, Double Indemnity’s narrative basis in James M. Cain’s prose finds fitting match in its visual basis in German expressionism, the manifest shadows of its moody aesthetic perfectly attesting the dark fears of a society at war with itself. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Unusually light as Mike Leigh films go, his 2008 Happy-Go-Lucky is the upbeat, amusing tale of primary school teacher Poppy, an infectiously cheery individual whose relentlessly optimistic view of the world clashes with the ferocious anger of his new driving instructor. Sally Hawkins works wonders with the character, sidestepping the potential annoyance of her chirpy exterior with her sheer sweetness and likeability, but it’s Eddie Marsan who really owns the film. Spewing a torrent of venomous aggression and voluminous spittle, Marsan is utterly hilarious yet somehow so quietly sad; his immitigable anger begs the difficult question of whose worldview is more delusional, his or Poppy’s. Leigh’s trademark improvisational style—reputedly overseen by the director crouched on the floor of the car in those scenes shot during driving lessons—allows the characters to feel so real and lived-in, and their relationship so magnificently believable, that its abundant comedy works all the more effectively. RECOMMENDED.
Managing within the first five minutes of its running time to slyly take aim at the direction of the A Nightmare on Elm Street following its debut instalment, Wes Craven’s self-aware slasher is a wickedly inventive and consistently sharp genre revitaliser, gifting its protagonists with that trait all too rare in horror characters: common sense. A key comparison point for The Cabin in the Woods earlier this year, Scream’s 1996 release refreshed the well-worn tropes of slasher cinema, infusing the formula with a vivacious sense of fun by then hardly seen in years. Perhaps it’s the lack of any effective scares, perhaps the relative safeness and ease of so much of the comedy, perhaps the lack of any particularly delectable gore, but the film doesn’t quite feel complete, missing that sense of sheer fun Cabin’s third act contributed in spades. Undeniably smart nonetheless, it’s a well-directed exercise in self-reflexion from one of the genre’s true masters. RECOMMENDED.
Making his bones on commercials and music videos, director Jonathan Glazer tried his hand at feature filmmaking with Sexy Beast; rarely has a debut been so contemporaneously confident and energetic, so assured and so gripping. Ray Winstone plays a former safe-cracking gangster retired to a Spanish villa where he lives his days in sun-soaked luxury until a boulder crashes from a mountain above, almost crushing him and forebodingly foreshadowing the arrival of a former associate intent on returning him for one last job. It’s a plot that could hardly be more prone to the tropes of the gangster film, yet Glazer crafts something truly original, his punchy visual style of sharp edits and meticulously focused frames working with the catchy soundtrack to elucidate the mental states of each of his characters. Ben Kingsley earned an Oscar nomination as the unwelcome houseguest; almost unrecognisable in his sweary fury, he’s the best thing in a movie bursting at the seams with greatness. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Among the most interesting of emergent young American directors, Jason Reitman reunites with Juno scribe Diablo Cody after his huge solo success in Up in the Air for Young Adult, an examination of arrested development in a teenage fiction series’ ghost writer. Offering a complicated role to Charlize Theron, who assumes it with impressive gusto, Cody’s story takes the author back to her small town home in order to win back the affections of a former boyfriend, recently made a father. It’s an odd narrative ripe with a potential that’s never quite met, the lacking likeability of the characters and general staidness of the plot preventing the extent of emotional engagement or thematic exploration required for greater involvement with these events. Still, Patton Oswalt and Patrick Wilson bring strong support to the table, and Reitman’s direction is expectedly effective in its implementation. Young Adult is a perfectly fine movie. Whether that’s enough is a whole other question. WORTH WATCHING.