The current ecosystem is currently dominated by either giant franchise IPs or small films geared at getting awards attention. Streaming services have bridged the gap providing a platform for the films that exist in the middle portions of that spectrum. Thus you see films (including many selected here) that would not otherwise have commercial viability in traditional theatres gain exposure to a wider audience and acclaim. This is especially vital for foreign and indie films that rarely get distributed beyond the major markets for without the online distribution a vast majority of the population would lose access to these films. While I advocate for the theatrical experience whenever possible, I do not feel particularly tied to a certain format when it comes to handing out awards. The best movies should win rewards regardless of where it is seen and sadly more often than not, these awards fail to recognize small cinematic gems like Paterson
.Directed by Jim Jarmusch Paterson stars Adam Driver as a bus driver who moonlights as a poet. Tracing the simplicities of a working-class man’s day to day life the film literally and figuratively flies under the radar functioning with very little plot or even conflict. However, it is able to find these moments of beauty tucked within the monotonous daily routine and through it (and Driver’s subtle yet soulful performance) Paterson is able to craft a stunning story out of the most basic of ingredients. Recently we have seen films that have held theatrical runs garner critical acclaim (like Paterson, Good Time, Columbus or A Ghost Story) but fail to become a real success financially so the fact that films of this nature can find a second life later on streaming platforms is both encouraging and reinforces the idea it matters less where a great movie is seen so long as it is seen.
There’s a certain level of courage in being able to write a screenplay recounting one of the most emotionally stressful periods of your life, while also reliving the experience as the lead actor of the film. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon brought themselves to an emotionally vulnerable and personally revealing place to tell the story of their relationship and the tragedy that strengthened their bond in their Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Big Sick.
Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, a Pakistani comedian who develops a relationship with Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), who contracts a rare disease and is comatose for several weeks. Along with her parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter in scene-stealing performances), they begin to form a connection as they wait by her bedside during her recovery, occasionally go out to try and momentarily take their mind off of it, but also help each other cope as they question the possibility that she might not wake up. The Big Sick captures the feeling of what a family goes through when they have a loved one in the hospital and the heartbreak and self-reflection that comes with a situation such as this. It also delves into Kumail’s personal family life and his relationship with his traditionalist Muslim parents. It examines the cultural divide that exists between him and his parents, his desire to break away from their traditional customs, without ever making them or their beliefs feel like “the other”. When the majority of Muslim representation portrayed in Hollywood, as well as most American media, is usually as nothing but terrorism, it benefits having someone of that culture and upbringing to tell a story from a perspective that delicately humanizes them as a normal family, while still criticizing the restrictions that their practices imposed on him as an individual. In an age where our country is as divided and antagonistic as it is, particularly towards Muslims and middle-easterners, a film that showcases the cultural differences in a story about coming together and embracing each other’s cultures in a moment of tragedy is exactly the type of story that we need.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the Hollywood system, a system that forces us to keep up with various cinematic universes and live-action reboots/remakes on what feels like a weekly basis, the rise of the streaming service has offered a home for the low-to-mid budget movie, whose presence has been mostly washed away. Perhaps the theater, with its massive screen and deafening sound system, is geared more towards the big blockbuster, but to brush aside streaming service exclusives is a misguided way to miss out on some of the most compelling stories being told, from new and familiar voices alike. To consider the streaming service as “lesser” is to undermine the power of the wonderful pieces of cinema that inhabit it, like Manchester by the Sea.
Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature is perhaps the most accurate examination of grief and depression ever put to screen, a story so grounded in a heartbreaking (but also rather darkly comedic) sense of reality that it becomes painfully relatable. Through a unique editing style, Lonergan seamlessly jumps us back in time to establish the origin of Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) situation, while a burgeoning relationship between Lee and his estranged nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in the present provides the few glimpses of hope in the former’s life. Affleck gives a performance for the ages, completely immersing himself into the character of Lee and nailing the small physical and emotional tics of a character in his situation. Hedges makes a name for himself as a young actor and holds his own against Affleck; even Michelle Williams, in her limited screen time, provides several of the most emotional beats of this story. With Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan has crafted a true modern masterpiece that is not to be missed.
In the wake of the controversy, it’s important to understand that Netflix has an equal capacity to make meaningful films that touch the human spirit, and can make them far more accessible for audiences who can’t make it to a movie theater. Case-in-point, Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece which won three Oscars this year: for Foreign Language, Direction, and Cinematography. It’s a real achievement, the high point in an already remarkable career from an excellent filmmaker. Cuaron builds on themes from throughout his earlier films, particularly Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men to make something that feels like the amalgamation of his life’s work. Beyond that, it’s an exceptionally moving and intimate story, the kind that isn’t normally given much recognition.
The best part of this experience is that it’s very accessible. Anyone with Netflix can see it: you don’t have to buy a DVD, or rent it online, or go to a movie theater. That’s the majesty of what Netflix does: good or bad, its films preserve the medium by making it more accessible to audiences who are used to having all the entertainment they need right at their fingertips. I challenge anyone to watch Roma and then claim that Netflix films are less deserving of recognition. Or, frankly, I’d challenge anyone to watch Roma and then deny it’s one of Cuaron’s, and the year’s, best films.
Soni is a miraculous little film out of India, with each scene being shot in one take, and these mini-vignettes quietly build upon each other to reveal the inner lives of two policewomen in India as they strive to tackle crimes against women, building out their small world to create an intimate experience. Directed by Ivan Ayr and making the festival rounds in 2018 before plopping onto Netflix earlier this year, it is a film that could have only found a release on the streaming giant because of its subject matter and small scale storytelling. There is not a heroic speech that motivates them to take down this growing epidemic of crimes against women, and it doesn’t crescendo into this third act triumph. Instead, it quietly builds its narrative upon these one-take scenes before ending on a melancholic image that fails to provide that generic happy ending we all seek out. Just by that description, it isn’t a film that has a place within the Indian marketplace where producers and stars rule the box office, and it doesn’t lend itself to American theatrical experience, so Netflix is the only place where it fits.
I say all of that to say that Spielberg might have a point in terms of how we define the cinematic experience, and whether that experience should count towards awards consideration. Spielberg is old school, and he wants to preserve the theatrical experience, while Netflix would be happy if we did away with that experience altogether so more people can subscribe to their service. I don’t have an issue with Netflix, and I appreciate that they are releasing films like Soni and Roma. However, if we take the theatrical experience out of it, then what separates them from something like HBO? They also release original films, but they are eligible for Emmy’s instead of Oscars because they don’t provide that theatrical experience. Maybe The Oscars need a best TV movie or best streaming movie or something like that, but I do feel like a theatrical experience should be taken into account when it comes to these awards because that is ultimately what separates cinema from television. I talked more about Netflix than Amazon Prime above because Amazon does give their films a theatrical run before they debut on their platform, so I don’t think Spielberg’s gripe is with them.