5 movies to watch on Netflix right now
For a movie so sleek, slow, and philosophical, Ex Machina is one of the most suspenseful thrillers I’ve ever seen. The movie is about Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer who wins a mysterious contest and is invited to the secluded home of wealthy tech giant Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When he arrives, Caleb discovers Nathan brought him there to have him participate in a real-life Turing Test: Caleb is to sit down with an AI that Nathan created named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and discern what makes her non-human.
The experiment does not go according to plan, to say the least; this is a Frankenstein story of technology and ambition gone awry. Vikander provides a layered performance as the AI, and Isaac is wild as her maniacal, and sometimes fun-loving, creator (the film breaks an unrelenting tension with a glorious Isaac dance scene that comes out of nowhere).
The complex moral questions raised by Ex Machina are fascinating, and much more clear than in his follow-up film from this year, Annihilation. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film, though, is that unlike many other great sci-fi films it is not a warning of what could happen, but a chilling statement on where we already are. In Ex Machina, Frankenstein’s monster is not a cautionary tale; the monster is already on the loose, with little hope of containment.
Ex Machina: 4 stars
Set It Up
Set It Up is, without exaggeration, the best Netflix original movie I’ve seen yet. The rom-com, released on Netflix last month, is about two executive assistants who, in an attempt to lessen their own workloads, try to set up their bosses with each other so the bosses devote less time to work. During the setup, though, the two assistants start falling for each other.
Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs, playing the respective bosses, deliver solid performances, but the movie succeeds because of the chemistry between the assistants, played by Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell. Deutch and Powell previously co-starred in the 2016 Richard Linklater film Everybody Wants Some!!, and I’m starting to think I should petition Netflix to cast them in one movie together every year. The two work effortlessly together, bolstering exchanges that would be boring in other rom-coms. Writer Katie Silberman (Set It Up was written and directed by women, a refreshing step for the rom-com genre) deserves credit for actively working against manic-pixie-dream-girl tropes and creating two of the most well-rounded rom-com leads in recent years.
The film's set up, if you will, is a nice change of pace beyond the actors playing the leads, but who those leads are. In many other rom-coms the main couple would be the wealthy, careerist editorial executive and the wealthy, smarmy entrepreneur. Here, that couple takes a backseat to the glorified interns at the bottom of the corporate food chain. Deutch and Powell form the backbone of a new rom-com classic, and I hope they work together again soon.
Set It Up: 4 stars
Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple falling in love, and falling out of it. The film cuts back and forth between the early days of their romance and the emotionally fraught present state of their fledgling relationship. It’s a deceptively complicated movie, one that doesn’t feel as if it has all that much to say, but is unique precisely because of that restraint.
Normally, in films about a dying romance, we might get some insight into what went wrong. Not here. Blue Valentine ends in a way that suggests that nothing specific can identify what went wrong between these two people; their lives simply changed, and the romanticism they had at the beginning passed them by.
Director Derek Cianfrance is a deft filmmaker, and manages to make a non-linear storyline flow smoothly. It’s an inventive use of time manipulation; flashbacks to the couple’s early romance recontextualize scenes in the present that we’ve already watched. The entire ordeal is drenched in red, white and blue, and Cianfrance makes an interesting choice by literalizing the deterioration of the American Dream as a dying romance. It’s a brutally emotional, uncomfortable film, but it's worth watching.
Blue Valentine: 4 stars
Oh, did I say Blue Valentine was emotional? It has a fraction of the emotional potency that Tower possesses. This documentary tells the story of the 1966 school shooting at the University of Texas-Austin, a tragedy that killed 16 people. To say that Tower is a hard watch is an understatement. There have been many movies that have made me shed tears, but no other movie has had me outright sobbing like this one.
That might not be a great selling point, but I promise, most of those were tears of joy. Few movies have ever boosted my confidence in the goodness of humanity as much as Tower. The film devotes little time to the identity of the shooter, or his motivations. Instead, Tower is dedicated to the heroes of that day, the folks who risked their lives to take down the shooter and save the wounded.
Tower is also an animated movie, using Rotoscope to animate interviews with the survivors and recreate the events of the day. It’s done in a delicate, artfully productive way, one that enhances the survivors’ stories while never overly dramatizing them. In a more typical documentary, the story we hear from one of the survivors tells about her romance with one of the victims of the shooting would be a standard talking head monologue. Here, the story is augmented by a gorgeous, and crushing, animated narrative. The Rotoscope animation also allows for a tremendous payoff at the end of the film, when we finally see the real subjects.
Tower is, for the most part, about the goodness of the people who prevented the situation from becoming much more grave than it already was. But the movie does turn outward at the end, imploring that the viewer never stand by in the face of egregious violence. We must be as good as these people showed we can be in our most heroic moments, because every time a shooting happens, we become more accustomed to it happening. Tower is a depressingly relevant film, and one of the very best movies of the decade.
Tower: 4 stars
Enemy is a 2013 sci-fi thriller from director Denis Villeneuve, who, along with Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, has yet to make a movie I didn’t like. Like all of his movies, Enemy moves slowly but deliberately, hurtling toward a rewarding payoff. The film follows a history professor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who, after watching a local film, discovers that an actor in the area is his exact double (Gyllenhaal plays both roles).
Villeneuve, as usual, is a master of thematic colorization. If Blade Runner 2049 was defined by a dream-like sky blue, Arrival by a blinding white light and Sicario by the tan sands of the Mexican-American border, Enemy is defined by a drab yellow-brown hue. Like these other films, the colorization is not only fashion, but function.
That function, however, is not readily apparent. The last shot of Enemy changes what the rest of the movie means, and the film almost requires a second viewing. It’s a tough film to understand, and I had to do some additional reading to (maybe) get it. But Villeneuve isn’t one to make a movie without purpose, and it does add up to something. At the beginning of the film, the following quote flashes on screen: Chaos is order yet undeciphered. Enemy requires some deciphering, and I don’t really want to venture into saying what the movie might be about. But Villeneuve has crafted a film where the process of figuring it out is, itself, worth it.
Enemy: 3.5 stars