If you have a subscription to Netflix’s instant streaming service, you’ve probably experienced a lot of frustration in trying to find a decent movie to watch on a quiet Saturday night. The streaming library can be a mixed bag: For every good movie, there’s a dozen box office rejects, direct-to-DVD rip-offs and obscure foreign films that didn’t get American distribution for very good reasons. After 10 minutes of searching for something decent, it’s easy to give up and just switch on an old “30 Rock” episode for the hundredth time.
But there are some diamonds buried in the rough recesses of the Netflix catalog, and it’s easy to lump them in with the dross in the site’s bottomless selection of new release titles. So I’ve scoured through the Netflix library and have picked out a few films from 2013 that are currently streaming and were mostly overlooked upon initial release. They deserve a watch, and you don’t even have to get off your couch to do it.
• “Berberian Sound Studio” – In the vein of Roman Polanski’s early work (especially “Repulsion”), Peter Strickland’s psychological chiller leaves you feeling unsettled through mere implication. Our protagonist is a meek British sound engineer (Toby Jones) who’s putting the finishing touches on a nasty Italian horror film that we never see – we can only hear the screams, bone cracking and head smashing he creates in his studio. The visceral effect of the film and deeply weird people he has to work with start to get to him, and the gory details of his job start to bleed into reality. It’s not going to work for everybody, but it’s atmospheric, paranoid and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
• “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” – If this movie inspires even one person to seek out the music of Memphis power pop band Big Star, then it’s done its job. Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s documentary chronicles the troubled career and post-mortem rediscovery of the group, which put out three great yet overlooked albums in the 1970s and languished in obscurity until everyone from R.E.M. to the Replacements began citing them as musical influences. This might be closer to a fans-only film – it’s a little too heavy on insider shorthand to be universally accessible – but it’s an entertaining and loving tribute to great musicians who never got the credit they properly deserved.
• “Cutie and the Boxer” – Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, “Cutie and the Boxer” examines the relationship between Japanese outsider artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, a burgeoning artist in her own right. Crammed in the couple’s cluttered New York City apartment, director Zachary Heinzerling creates a touching and often funny portrait of two people who are fiercely independent and yet emotionally bound to one another: We see the push and pull of their 40-year marriage (when they met, she was 19 and he was 41) and come to understand their individual approaches to art – Noriko tells her life story through whimsical ink illustrations, while Ushio punches giant canvases with paint-doused boxing gloves.
• “Room 237” – When Stanley Kubrick released his loose adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “The Shining” in 1980, the critical world responded with a collective shrug. Decades later, however, the movie’s reputation has grown considerably, and it’s now one of the most famous and oft-referenced horror stories of all time. Rodney Ascher’s documentary is not only an exhaustive visual essay about Kubrick’s film, but also a wild portrait of obsession, as a group of “experts” point to hints and allusions in Kubrick’s film that they claim unlock its central mystery. Is “The Shining” an allegory for Native American genocide or the Holocaust? Is it Kubrick’s veiled admission that he helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landing? Or is it an exercise in transmitting insidious subliminal messages through cinematic trickery? You decide.
• “Upstream Color” – I’m not sure I totally understand this movie. In fact, most of it completely baffled me, but it has a haunting quality that’s undeniable. The second film by writer-director Shane Carruth (“Primer”), “Upstream Color” plays like Terrence Malick by way of Margaret Atwood, an ethereal tone poem about (I think) love, identity and memory. A lot of critics unreservedly praised “Upstream Color” when it came out in April, but I found it to be almost too dramatically ambiguous for its own good (its plot, if you can call it that, involves a telepathic parasite, kidnapping and pigs). And yet I can’t deny that individual images and sequences from the film have stayed with me long after watching it, and even if I wasn’t completely entranced by it, I think there’s an audience for this movie out there somewhere.