In Theaters or Streaming, These Netflix Movies Are Well Worth Seeing

25 Nov

Marriage Story and Two PopesI have long been a proponent of seeing movies in a movie theater.

In spite of the possible frustrations — people talking and/or using their cell phones, overpriced food and drink — the communal experience of watching a movie, with good projection on a big screen, and loud, sharp sound can’t be beat. It is far superior to watching something in the comfort of your own home, where there are more distractions and it’s generally a much less immersive experience.

All of that has made the last month or so a bit confusing for me, because some of the best movies I’ve seen — indeed, some of the best movies of the year — have come from Netflix, which, not surprisingly, is prioritizing not the in-theater experience, but the at-home streaming one. Each of Netflix’s big releases this year is receiving just a limited theatrical release (to qualify for awards, natch) before being more widely shared with the public on the streaming platform.

Why would a filmmaker choose to make a movie for a company that does this? Creative freedom is generally the answer. I mean, were he working for a more traditional studio, Martin Scorsese would probably never have been able to make a three-and-a-half-hour epic like The Irishman the way he wanted to make it. Likewise, Alfonso Cuarón was able to be indulgent in his own ways with Roma, one of my favorite movies of 2018 (and a multiple Oscar winner). So obviously, there’s a tradeoff.

Films are supposed to be seen in a theater, on a big screen. I’ll never believe otherwise. But Netflix isn’t making it easy to see their films that way. So, should you make an exception for two of the company’s newest releases — which, admittedly, I did see in a theater? (And should I be okay with it?) Yes. Here’s why.

Marriage Story

marriage story posterNoah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (in theaters now, and on Netflix starting December 6) stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as Charlie and Nicole, an artistic New York couple whose marriage is ending.

The film begins with them in couples counseling, talking about what each likes about the other — his talent for creating family wherever he goes, her gift-giving abilities, their mutual competitiveness. While it’s clear these two still share a lot of affection, she nevertheless heads to Los Angeles with their young son to pursue a TV role and to get some space (physically and emotionally).

Charlie and Nicole have promised each other they’ll get divorced amicably, without lawyers, and he assumes her move out west will just be a temporary one. However, it’s not long before the best intentions go awry, lawyers get involved, and soon the relationship is dissolving before our eyes.

Despite the downer of a plot, Baumbach’s movie is not entirely a downer of a watch. The dialogue-heavy screenplay is warm and witty, with every emotion earned. And while the film has an undeniable Woody Allen–esque rhythm to it, it also follows Allen’s lead by being a real actor’s showcase, from the two leads to the very strong supporting turns by Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and (especially) Laura Dern, as the lawyers.

Driver and Johansson have rarely given such soulful, authentic performances. He shows real vulnerabilities as Charlie begins to realize he has to play defense to hold on to his son and maintain some semblance of family. And she really comes alive as Nicole finally gets to come out from under her husband’s shadow and establish her own life again.

Marriage Story is filled with multiple memorable and unforgettable moments, including a tense blowout in Charlie’s temporary L.A. apartment, during which the couple finally express the emotions they’ve been holding in. But good luck shaking Driver’s raw, emotional performance of “Being Alive,” from the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, near the end of the film. It’s heartbreaking.

Baumbach, whose While We’re Young was my favorite movie of 2015, has crafted a movie that shows real understanding about the challenges of forging a life with another person — that tricky balance of wanting connection but to not lose your own sense of self — and what happens when it’s no longer possible.

I give Marriage Story an A–.

The Two Popes

two popes posterNot much is known about what happens behind the closed doors of the Vatican, but in director Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes (in theaters on November 27, and on Netflix starting December 20), we get to listen in on some intense discussions about the future of the Catholic Church.

The film, written by Anthony McCarten (adapted from his 2017 play The Pope), stars Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as the titular pontiffs. When we first meet them, it’s 2005, and Pope John Paul II has just passed away. Leaders from around the world, including Pryce’s Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Hopkins’ German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, have assembled in Rome for a papal conclave to decide who will be the new leader of the Church. As we all know, Ratzinger was elected Pope as Benedict XVI.

Just over seven years later, with the Church embroiled in scandal, Bergoglio is summoned to the Vatican right as he has decided to step away from public life and retire. Decent coincidence, as Cardinals need approval before they can step down. But it turns out, Benedict has no intention of accepting this request. Instead, he wants to talk with his former rival. The two men begin grappling with some of the biggest issues facing the Church before Benedict decides to step down himself, making way for an unprecedented transfer of power, during which Bergoglio would become Pope Francis.

Beautifully shot, with gorgeous, sweeping cinematography, The Two Popes offers views of the Vatican usually unseen by the public. And the dialogue, which pits the old-school conservative against the progressive reformer, provides real insight into the role and differing perspectives of religious leaders in such fractured times. Benedict and the future Francis don’t have much in common, but their shared love of God and the Church allow them to eventually find common ground.

But The Two Popes is more than a movie about religion — and to be clear, you don’t need to be Catholic to appreciate it. (For the record, I’m Jewish.) McCarten tells part of Bergoglio’s story through flashbacks, illustrating how his feelings of doubt and a need for reckoning are universal. And, some well placed laughs sometimes even turn the film into an unlikely buddy comedy. (“It’s a German joke. It doesn’t have to be funny” is one such gem.)

Hopkins and Pryce are perfectly cast in their roles — and not just because of their physical resemblances to the actual men they’re playing. These two seasoned pros nicely play up the contrasts between these two men — one a colder, insular, traditionalist and the other a warm, friendly man who doesn’t care to eat alone, loves ABBA and football, and is committed to fixing the problems he sees in the world — without turning them into caricatures. Hopkins and Pryce’s performances are heartfelt and often delightful, and some of the best character work you’ll see all year.

Sure, these conversations may not have actually happened (and probably didn’t). Some viewers may find that blend of fact and fiction to be a problem. But I appreciated how, together, Meirelles, McCarten, Hopkins, and Pryce show that these two powerful men of God are really just human beings, grappling with some of the same questions and the imposter syndrome that many other people do.

I give The Two Popes an A­–.

The Bottom Line

No matter how you see these movies, in a theater or streaming, do not miss Marriage Story or The Two Popes.

2 Responses to “In Theaters or Streaming, These Netflix Movies Are Well Worth Seeing”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Wrapping Up a Decade at the Movies with 20 Favorite Films | Martin's Musings - December 10, 2019

    […] Marriage Story (2019) […]

  2. I’m Putting These Songs in My 2019 Time Capsule to Preserve Good Memories | Martin's Musings - December 12, 2019

    […] Naturally, I saw a lot of movies this year, and songs from some of them appear on the playlist, as well, including “I Got 5 on It” (from Us), “Come and Get Your Love” (from Avengers: Endgame), “Rocket Man” (from, uh, Rocketman), “To Whom It May Concern” and “Nobody Speak” (from Booksmart), “The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy” (from Toy Story 4), “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” (from The Last Black Man in San Francisco), “Go Where You Wanna Go” (from Echo in the Canyon — and hey, did I mention that I met Jakob Dylan when he was in Boston to promote the film?), “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” (from the trailer for Knives Out), “Bring a Little Lovin’” (from Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood), “Criminal” (from Hustlers), “That’s Life” (from Joker), “Collide” (from Queen & Slim), a cover of “Into the Unknown” (from Frozen 2, even though I never did see that movie),” and “Being Alive” (which Adam Driver sang in Marriage Story). […]

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