Top 10 Obscure-ish Movies You Should Watch on Netflix

More often than not, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, I use Netflix as a means to obtaining background noise when my husband isn’t at home. I cook dinner, clean house, and let my mind melt into a puddle at the end of a long day as long-familiar episodes of Friends, The Office, Parks & Rec30 Rock, and/or Gossip Girl play on loop on my mantel.

But every once in awhile, I use Netflix in the way it’s meant to be used. I scroll through the nearly endless lists of movies and documentaries until one strikes my fancy. This method of selection sometimes ends in horror and regret, like the time we tried to watch Children of the Revolution–trust me, just don’t–but oftentimes we end up discovering real gems. Here are the top 10 obscure-ish movies you should watch on Netflix.

Disclaimer: Some of these movies might have been removed from Netflix since I watched them last. If that’s the case, I apologize, but you should still track every last one of these movies down and watch them! 

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Jennifer Lawrence Two Ways, or: Surprised by Joy

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My husband and I rarely make it to the movie theater. Between both of us working six days a week (at least), my writing, and the ever-climbing ticket prices, it usually doesn’t seem worth the hassle.

This year, though, thanks to a surprisingly good number of options at the box office and the generosity of family members, we made it for quite a few films this year. Jurassic World. Ant Man. The Intern. The Martion. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. And, as luck would have it, we viewed two Jennifer Lawrence films–The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and Joy–in less than twenty-four hours.

These movies couldn’t be more different, and neither could the respective heroines. That’s obvious, right? I mean, the one is set in a postapocalyptic dystopian wasteland hundreds of years in the future, while the other can be found smack dab in the middle of the decade of my childhood. The one is charged with the unrequested burden of saving the known world, while the other just wants to support herself. You can’t compare the two at all.

Except that you kind of can.


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I read The Hunger Games once, right before the first movie came out. Both of my roommates were big fans of the series, and over the course of a few snotty, hazy sick days, I managed to plow through all three books. I loved The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

My venture into Mockingjay, however, culminated with me hurling my (borrowed) copy across my bedroom.

Nearly four years later, I stand by that decision.

*spoilers ahead–read at your own risk*

The conclusion to this bestselling YA series, which years after its last publication is still selling like hotcakes, is about as satisfying to me as the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathy Hallows, and for the same reason.*

*Don’t crucify me quite yet. I’ll delve into my qualms about Harry Potter–which overall, I absolutely adore–at a later date.

From the moment Effie plucks her sister’s name out of the bowl at the Reaping Ceremony at the very beginning, Katniss’s life becomes a series of trips to the gates of Hell and back.

She is forced to kill other children, lest she be killed herself. She helplessly watches on as Rue dies, and she spends days worrying that Peeta will slip away from her, too. She develops PTSD and receives no counseling.

Once she returns to Twelve, she lives in constant fear that President Snow will kill her, or worse, her family. She is forced into a fake relationship while her heart is elsewhere. She is forced into yet another round of the Games, where she watches even more friends meet their untimely ends.

She is ripped from her known reality and whisked away to Thirteen, where she is quickly made into Alma Coin’s puppet and put in the frustrating situation of being the face of the rebellion but having no power to do anything of substance. Her mental trauma goes untreated and seemingly unnoticed by everyone around her. She loses more friends, more family. She begins to suspect that the good guys are no better than the bad, only to have those suspicions confirmed.

And after it’s all said and done, after she helps topple a tyrannical dictatorship and prevent a new one from rising in its place, what does she do? She retreats alone to the same miserable, bombed out ghost town the government forced her to live in all those years. She ends up marrying Peeta because he makes his way back there, too. They have a couple of children. She still has nightmares about the Games, and probably always will, but at least they’re safe for now. Fade to black.

Um. . .excuse me?

The conclusion to Mockingjay differs so much from the two preceding books that it is almost physically jolting. The Hunger Games and Catching Fire both end on a note of triumph, of hope for the future. Mockingjay has nothing to offer but existential drudgery and despair.

The movie handled the story much better than the book did, but my hope that the tone would change was not fulfilled. I left the theater feeling beat down and depressed. Feeling like my investment in the series wasn’t worth it at all.

For what it’s worth, Jennifer Lawrence’s swan song performance as Katniss Everdeen was flawless. The raw emotion she lends to every character she plays brought a flat character to life and evoked empathy from me where the book could not. I cared about Movie Katniss, which makes the end of Mockingjay Part 2 even worse.


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Contrary to Mockingjay, I had no earthly idea what I was getting into with Joy. The trailer was deliciously ambiguous about the plot, which was refreshing and intruiging–these days, most trailers seem to contain spoilers galore. Even when I read a short synopsis of the movie, it didn’t sound all that great. But because I trust Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, and David O. Russell, I gave it a shot.

Man. Oh, man. Joy isn’t a movie. It’s a work of art.

Cinematographically speaking, it’s a beautiful, beautiful mess. In some ways, it reminded me of two other favorites, (500) Days of Summer and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.

Awkward camera angles. Theatrical staging. Stageshow-like dialogue. A very strange show-within-a-movie kind of thing. With an ordinary movie, I would have shrugged these techniques off and labelled the movie as haughty and unnecessarily artsy. But in Joy’s case, they only served to make the film stronger.

Joy is a modern feminist retelling of Cinderella. My husband pointed this out to me on the car ride back home on New Year’s Day. I responded to this by blinking slowly and stupidly before realizing of course it is. I’m still not quite sure how I missed it. (Perhaps he should be the one writing this blog.)

*Mild spoilers ahead–read at own risk*

Joy is the only grown-up in a world full of adolescent-minded people content to wallow in failure. Her parents aren’t dead, but they might as well be–her mother spends all day and all night tucked in bed, immersing herself in soap operas and ignoring reality, and her father slips effortlessly from one woman to the next. Her half-sister is snarky and judgmental. Her ex-husband loafs about in her basement two years after the divorce. Joy’s only supporter is her grandmother, who remembers her gift for creating and inventing and encourages her to pursue that aspect of herself. After a red wine fiasco with her father’s newest amor, Joy has a flash of inspiration: she won’t accept the expectation that she has to scrub on her hands and knees. Oh, no. She’s going to create a self-wringing mop.

What’s so beautiful about this movie is Joy’s refusal to succumb to her apparent destiny. All her life, her family drains her energy and hard work like a parasite. They practically beg her to join them in their pit of failure and despondancy. But she refuses, and through her own innovation, she pulls herself through. No prince required.

Joy is all about self-determination. It’s about taking control of your life, maybe even your destiny. It’s about confidence, hard work, and persistence trumping listlessness, laziness, and defeat. It’s about hope, and love, and. . .well. . .joy.


 

I’m convinced Jennifer Lawrence is the great actress of our times. When future generations look back at our era of cinema, she will be our Greta Garbo, our Audrey Hepburn, our Ingrid Bergman. In both her current movies, she proved once more that she is worthy of all the awards. She reached through the screen, twisted my heart, and made me wish I’d smuggled some tissues inside the theater.

The only difference is simple. Joy was worthy of her. Mockingjay was not.

 

Inside Out and the Importance of Story

When I went to see Inside Out with my husband about a month and a half ago, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d watched the trailers, so I understood the basic premise, but the plot eluded me. This was a movie…about feelings? I didn’t get it. But Disney Pixar has never let me down, so I entered the movie theater expecting great things. And I was not disappointed.

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I waited so long to bring this movie up here because I wanted to make sure I actually liked it. All too often, I’ve been swept away by the latest animated hit, only to find myself feeling ambivalent about it weeks later once the hype died down. Usually in those cases, I didn’t actually love the movie itself, but rather the stunning artwork or the fantastic music. Both of those are essential components to any film, especially those that are animated, because they’re right there on the surface. Visual and aural beauty are the first things we notice when the curtains slide back and the lights go down; they’re what hook us in and make us want to stay. They’re also ephemeral. When we return home and go about our lives, the memory of that stunning landscape or the heartrending sound of this cluster of notes fades until all that is left of that movie in our mind is the story. And, sadly, the story doesn’t always hold up.

But this wasn’t the case with Inside Out, at least not for me. Several weeks later, when I can barely remember what the main character looked like and the soundtrack has all but disappeared, the story still rings true. I still feel comfortable saying that this is the best film Pixar has yet released. It’s better than Toy Story, it’s better than Wreck-It Ralph, and – though it will hurt some to hear this – yes, it’s better than Up. Here’s why.

**Moving forward, there will be spoilers. Consider yourself duly warned.**

It reminds us that there are no such thing as “negative” emotions.

Throughout the course of the story, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and even Sadness prove themselves to be necessary elements of the human experience. No one likes to be afraid, angry, disgusted, or sad, but the truth is that without these emotions, we would not have as full a life. Without fear, there is no caution; without anger, no sense of justice; without disgust,  no appreciation; without sadness, no motivation to better ourselves.

Near the beginning of the movie, I noticed something strange: while Joy is unarguably in charge in Riley’s mind, this is not the case for her parents. The emotion calling the shots for Riley’s mom is Sadness, and for her dad, Anger.

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The interesting thing about this is that neither parent seems to be generally unhappy. This is fantastic foreshadowing for the movie’s epiphany, in which we realize the so-called negative emotions lead to a richer, more complex life experience.

This resonated with me more than any other aspect of the movie. From an early age, I struggled with general anxiety disorder and mild depression. I didn’t receive a diagnosis until I was an adult, but looking back, I can see how it shaped my childhood. For the longest time, I felt guilty because my default setting was not unadulterated Joy, but rather a nasty mix of Anger, Sadness, and Fear. I thought that I was doing something wrong, that somehow I was not living life the way I was supposed to. So it was nice to see those three emotions shown not only as positive, but necessary.

It reminds us that children’s emotions are just as valid as those of adults.

Something that bothers me about modern entertainment, and popular culture in general, really, is the lack of validity given to the feelings of children. Toddlers have meltdowns over the existence of shadows or the fact that they can’t become animals, children throw punches because their another kid was looking at them funny, and teenagers fall into periods of deep, inexplicable angst or claim that they’re in love. From the adult perspective, it’s easy to blow these feelings off as unimportant because we see now how insignificant those kinds of problems were in our own lives.

But here’s the thing: just because someone is young, just because someone doesn’t yet understand how insignificant this moment will be when viewed as part of the big picture, that doesn’t mean those feelings are not real. Just because children don’t have mortgages to worry over or jobs to get to or bills to pay, doesn’t mean they have no right to feel sad, to feel angry, to be afraid.

Initially, Inside Out shows the usual adult reaction to a child’s sadness. Riley, who in addition to leaving her friends and everything she knows behind, has endured a long car ride from Minnesota to California only to arrive at an empty, small house. None of their furniture or clothes have arrived through a shipping error, so she has no clean clothes and no bed. She has to sleep on her new floor in a sleeping bag in the dark. Oh, and when she went to go get pizza with her mom at the place down the street, she finds out the only flavor they have is covered in her least favorite food!

Honestly, this is more than enough to justify anyone being grumpy or sad. But how does Riley’s mom choose to respond to Riley’s less than enthusiastic attitude? She asks her to be happy again.

This input from her parents continues over the course of the movie. They constantly ask her why she isn’t happy, call her their happy girl, ask her where their happy girl is…on and on and on. And she tries. Joy puts Sadness in a tiny little circle, forbidding her to do anything, but it doesn’t work that way. Because sometimes, you’re just sad. And you can’t pretend you’re not.

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But when she finally breaks down at the end and tells them she’s sad because she misses home, they comfort her. They hug her, they cry with her, they commiserate…but they don’t tell her to be happy. Because she’s not. And because they finally understand she, like they, can’t be happy at the push of a button or the pull of a lever, so they stop asking her to try.

It reminds us that personalities change over time, and that’s okay.

At the beginning of the movie, Riley’s personality is defined by five Islands of Personality, each built around a core memory: family, friendship, hockey, sense of right and wrong, and goofiness.

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When Joy accidentally sends Riley’s core memories away from headquarters, everything quickly escalates to disaster. Without Joy (and really, without Sadness), Riley’s actions cause the islands of personality to crumble and fall down into the Memory Dump. The pervading fear of her emotions is that once all the core memories and islands are gone, Riley will be without a personality forever.

But when the final island falls, Riley is still there. She might not know who she is or what she wants, but she’s still there. And with the help of her family, she begins to rebuild. At the end of the movie, new core memories have formed new islands of personality, and she begins to live a richer, more complex life as she matures.

Everyone goes through an identity crisis like this at least once, a time in which we realize we aren’t exactly who we thought we were. And even though it feels like everything is falling apart, we come out on the other side with a better sense not only of who we are, but who we want to be. No one is the same person from cradle to grave – thank God. Because if that was the case, life would hardly be worth living.

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In short, Inside Out is one of the best animated movies ever created. It conquers the question “What does it mean to be human?” on a level both adults and children can appreciate, and it does so in such a way that encourages deep thought and interesting conversation. It acknowledges that human existence is rich and complex and fluid, emphasizes the resilience of the human spirit, and echoes the immortal words of Dr. Seuss:

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