The Hidden Gems of 2017 Movies Are on … Netflix?


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Merab Ninidze and Ia Shugliashvili in “My Happy Family.”

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Memento Films International

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first two months of the year are desolate times for movie lovers who prefer to gorge on new releases. Once the holiday season’s tidal wave of blockbusters and prestige pictures has receded there’s not much action beyond the awards season itself. Releasing only chaff during the first two months of the year has been a studio tradition so longstanding that nobody seems to remember the rationale. But even for awards mavens, now is a good time to catch up and explore.

During the last week of 2017 I was out of New York, visiting relatives, and one evening circumstances left me alone in their house with a few hours to kill. I ended up using my phone to watch “Série Noire,” a grimy 1979 French crime thriller that I saw maybe 20 years ago, via a pretty grimy-in-itself 16 -millimeter print, and had no expectation to see again. Directed by Alain Corneau, the movie is an adaptation of the novel “A Hell of a Woman,” by the American genre writer Jim Thompson. (Mr. Corneau wrote the screenplay with Georges Perec, the French literary genius who wrote “Life: A User’s Manual.”)

The story line of “Série Noire” is jaw-droppingly squalid — less than 10 minutes into the movie an abusive aunt is pimping her young niece (Marie Trintignant) to a feckless traveling salesman (Patrick Dewaere) — and the movie’s setting, an impoverished Paris suburb in the depths of a drippy winter, is depicted with such rigor that you suspect the film stock itself of carrying mold. Not everyone’s cup of tea, obviously, and not to make light of trigger warnings, but this movie could conceivably be eligible for at least a dozen of them. But I’ve long found it unnerving and fascinating, and when a friend on social media mentioned that it was available on FilmStruck, I was genuinely surprised.

[ See the best 100 movies currently on Netflix. ]

One comes to expect at least a certain amount of the unexpected on a carefully curated site like FilmStruck. That’s less true of Netflix. Still, I’ve always thought the commonly propagated complaint about the dearth of “classic” films on Netflix something of a straw man. The streaming service has never advertised itself as a curated haven of greatness. People perhaps confuse Netflix’s DVD rental service, which offers a wide variety of older and critically elevated films, with the streaming service, on which you cannot watch “Citizen Kane” or “Casablanca.”

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My own complaint about the service is more about the presentation of the movies they have than the quality of the movies themselves. It’s no secret that Netflix doesn’t do a great job letting consumers know what more recent critical favorites are available, so if you’re on that site and looking for hidden gems, you’re not going to find them gathered under a category. Nor is it a sure thing that the site’s algorithm is going to recommend them to you.

But they’re there. A few weeks back Bilge Ebiri, the lead film critic for the Village Voice, placed “My Happy Family,” a drama from Tblisi, Georgia, at the top of his 2017 best films list. Mr. Ebiri had first seen it at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2017, and after that it dropped from sight. As it happens, it is on Netflix. Another 2017 Sundance favorite, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” turned up on Netflix very shortly after it played the festival. But these streaming premieres were hardly big Netflix events. A big Netflix event is “Bright,” a sci-fi fantasy film widely mocked by reviewers that garnered sufficient viewership on the service to justify a sequel. I understand the relations of scale between indie films and blockbusters, but in the streaming world there ought to be a middle ground between “Bright”-style exposure and zero public awareness.

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