(Editor’s Note: Also check out or story on hackneyed documentary genres, “10 kinds of documentaries we could do without” with examples and counterexamples from netflix instant)
When people say “There’s nothing good on Netflix Instant”, I experience the same knee-jerk reactionary impulse to prove them wrong as when people complain, “There’s nothing to do in Oklahoma City.” I half-jokingly say that Netflix is mankind’s greatest invention, but in my heart of hearts, I believe it. If it weren’t for Netflix, I’d never watch some of the more esoteric, hard-to-find films that now populate my favorites list by directors like Werner Herzog, Jonathan Demme, Steven Soderbergh, Frederico Fellini, Luis BuÃ±uel, Jean-LucGodard, Pedro AlmodÃ³var, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ingmar Bergman, FranÃ§ois Truffaut, Wim Wenders, Debra Granik, Robert Altman – and the list goes on. I don’t drop these names to sound pretentious – I just want to underscore my appreciation for Netflix. It has given me access to films by directors I was long curious about, but had never seen. Of course, with my liberal viewing of such films as The Virgin Spring or Fitzcarraldo, I temper the film snobbery with a healthy dose of such groundbreaking classics as “Dude, Where’s My Car?” (don’t ask).
My Netflix history is a clinamenian morass of embarrassing slices of my tastes and temperaments, but with enough legitimate film in the mix to salvage me from the Frat Boy recommendations. This is the same trap most people fall into with Netflix: seeing the shit on the surface and stopping there. I’ve wasted a lot of time on Toddlers and Tiaras, until I decided, as part of my New Year’s resolution to “stop procrastinating on crap” and actually watch the films in my queue. It’s been a rewarding journey, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank one certain friend who has never once steered me wrong with his brilliant recommendations (JK, I’m talking to you).
Without further ado, I introduce my list of the 10 most disturbing movies available on Netflix Instant. Iâ€™ll qualify the â€œmost disturbingâ€ label by saying that I didnâ€™t want to be predictable by putting stuff like Ichi the Killer and Anti-Christ on the list. I canâ€™t watch that shit. If I wanted horrorporn, I certainly wouldnâ€™t be paying a monthly subscription for it. This list should surprise you and unnerve you, but it shouldnâ€™t make you need eye bleach.
10. Four Lions
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A movie written and directed by the hilarious Chris Morris shouldnâ€™t be on this list, should it? Morris, famous for his turns on British sitcoms like The Day Today (where he shares screen time with Steve Coogan, who plays his co-anchor) and The IT Crowd (where he is eventually replaced by the devastatingly funny Matt Berry), is anything but a downer. Sharing writing credits for the film are Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong â€“ the writers of arguably the best sitcom of all time, Peep Show. So why is this film on the list?
First of all, Iâ€™d be lying if I said this movie isnâ€™t hysterical. It really is. There are far more figurative side-splitting moments than literal ones, I promise. However, the premise contains an awful undercurrent that shows the humanity behind terrorism. The Four Lions are Omar, Waj, Barry and Faisal, four bumbling, dunderheaded young Muslim men, bent on embracing Jihad (a fifth member of their â€œterrorist cellâ€, Hassam, is added later by Barry). They are earnest in their anti-Western rhetoric and desperately try to move forward with plans to blow upâ€¦something (anything really).
All of their actions are backwards and futile, and often their misfires are literal. Faisal accidentally blows himself up. Omar accidentally fires a rocket in the wrong direction and destroys a terrorist training camp where Osama bin Laden was supposedly present. Barry wants to blow up a mosque for purposes of misdirection and to â€œradicalize the moderates!â€ These guys are an endearing pack of idiots.
The dark side to all of this is that their beliefs are very real and are currently echoed by modern day jihadists. Extremist Muslim sects in the Middle East veritably crackle with unrest and anger toward the West. The thing is, through the eyes of Omar (the main and very likable protagonist), you can begin to understand why. With America so hopped up on Fox News bullshit for the past decade, the grey area in this debate was completely replaced by black and white demagoguery. Critical thinking was replaced with patriotism, logic with equivocation, compassion with tea bags. What this polarizing buffet of media gluttony erases are the human faces and real lives of those suffering under the iron fist of Western military infiltration and neo-colonialist ideals.
All the while, we reside safely in our homes clasping tightly to our breast the notion that these extremists are bad because theyâ€™re killing people. So are we, though. But if weâ€™re doing it, itâ€™s okay. They hurt us first, right? Never mind that the Bible teaches us to turn the other cheek. Never mind that Iraq had nothing to do with it. Never mind that the concentration of oil in the Middle East is a gigantic contributing factor.
None of this has made sense for a long time â€“ so long in fact, that weâ€™ve basically forgotten the War on Terror, but weâ€™re damn sure still paying for it.
Sorry for the rant, but this movie got to me. I liked Omar so much that I found myself wanting him to succeed, until I was reminded that what heâ€™s doing is wrong, and that his belief in those 40 virgins in heaven is a joke (a cruel, cruel joke). Omarâ€™s actions, and those of his friends, are terrible, but you see the struggle and conflict they go through in carrying it out. You see what unchecked faith amounts to, and the terrible things we do in the name of religion.
Iâ€™ve always thought that good comedy will make us laugh about the fucked up way the world works. And this is a good comedy.
9. Vernon, Florida
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Errol Morris is legitimately the most renowned documentary filmmaker in the world, and also a total badass. You’ve probably heard of his films even if you haven’t seen one (Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death, The Fog of War, etc.). His pioneering techniques led to the development of the Interrotron, a now widely used device in documentary films, created by Morris himself. Similar to a teleprompter, the Interrotron allowed a subject to sit facing a camera, but also retain a human connection by seeing the interviewer’s face reflected in a two-way mirror lens.
Vernon, Florida is my favorite Morris documentary, more for what is untold than what is told. Morris became interested in this small town in Florida for the simple fact that it contains within it the most amputees per capita than any other town or city in America. In fact, the nickname for Vernon, Florida is Nub City. Curious as to the cause, Morris went to Vernon to investigate. He uncovered a grim scene of fraud, where citizens of the town would amputate their own limbs to collect insurance money. Their thinking is summed up by this grotesque statement: â€œAfterward, you could still write your name and still have a foot to press the gas pedal of your Cadillac.â€
However, you wonâ€™t see this is in the documentary. When the inhabitants of Vernon, Florida caught wind of Morrisâ€™s documentary, they began threatening his life, desperate to keep their secret from the outside world. You know, if people lunatic enough to sever their own limbs for a wad of cash start threatening your life, it’s probably a really good idea to put the brakes on exposing their big, gross secret. Though Morris was not responsible for revealing how Nub City got its name, he did make a satisfyingly unsettling documentary about a town full o’ weirdos. What you will find in this movie are bizarre eccentrics â€“ kind of like real-life versions of the characters in Gummo. If you keep in mind the true nature of this story, it throws into even sharper relief its more grotesque, hidden elements.
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Chances are, if youâ€™ve seen a Hal Hartley film, you may not have liked it. He instructs his actors to recite their lines like theyâ€™re in a stage play, which makes for incredibly awkward, but unforgettable films. The characterâ€™s wooden deliveries onscreen somehow underscore the terrible things theyâ€™re doing and saying. Hartley films tend to be deeply unsettling. Trust is, by far, the best film HH has ever done.
It stars Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelley and itâ€™s as bleak and sad as a Serbian landscape. Shelley plays a caricature of a rebellious 80s teenager, named Maria Coughlin. Sheâ€™s so exaggeratedly rebellious that her actions come across as comedic. However, in the opening scene, after she slaps her father in the face and stalks out of the house to school, she quickly learns that not only do actions have consequences, sometimes the consequences are punishingly and ridiculously extreme.
Donovan, playing Matthew Slaughter, is an unhinged Roarkian character. Slaughter bristles at his bossesâ€™ request to compromise the integrity of the computers he puts together at a factory, and subsequently he gets fired. For all of his bluster and bravado, he is quickly reduced to cowering, childlike fright at the hands of his terrible father. His father is a foot shorter than Slaughter, but vibrates with the intense, unpredictable anger of Joe Pesci in Casino. His abuse toward his adult son is both infuriating and hard to watch.
Matthew and Maria soon cross paths, and their fragile relationship is put to the test by their oppressive, manipulative family members. Itâ€™s the dialogue that really sparkles in this film, with the characters speaking lines that crystallize their existential crises beautifully. The disturbing element is the manipulation, the cruelty and the sociopathic nature of nearly everyone in this film.
7. Two Days
The cast list will make you think this is a comedy, and I suppose one could, at the very least, label it a dark comedy. With a very young Paul Rudd and Adam Scott as the two main characters, you think you might be in for a mockumentary about a budding bromance, but this film is anything but.
The name comes from Paul Ruddâ€™s promise: in two days, he will kill himself. Rudd plays Paul Miller, a failed actor living in Los Angeles (not unlike the character Scott later plays in Party Down, but way more depressed).
Adam Scott plays Millerâ€™s friend Stu, an egotistical and somewhat annoying documentary filmmaker. Stu decides to chronicle the last two days of Millerâ€™s life, and the camera bears witness to friends and family trying to talk Miller out of his decision. His friends and family do not take his threat seriously. Everyone seems to think heâ€™s doing it for attention. Stu constantly breaks the fourth wall by interjecting himself into the documentary, declaring that he knows that Miller wonâ€™t actually do it. Stu tries to talk him out of it, but in an insincere and patronizing way.
Stuâ€™s inability to let this be an objective record of the events acts as a betrayal. You find yourself believing that Miller wonâ€™t really do it. He seems depressed, sure, but heâ€™s also awfully glib about something so serious as suicide.
Itâ€™s the incredible, surprising and unexpected ending to this film that has secured its position in my Top 10. Take Stuâ€™s predictions and the dismissal of Millerâ€™s pain by friends and family and ignore them. Thereâ€™s nothing predictable about what happens at the end, and for that, I can say this is one of the best and most compelling performances Paul Rudd ever accomplishes in his career.
6. Mail-Order Wife
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First, a word on the guys behind this film: Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko. I am one step removed from Gurland and Botko, due to the fact that we share a mutual friend. This friend is responsible for pointing me toward their work. If it werenâ€™t for him, I probably would never have come across their stuff. Theyâ€™re not exactly mainstream.
At the very least, you have likely heard of their latest film The Last Exorcism [For those of you who have seen this movie or plan on seeing this movie Iâ€™ll tell you that they are not responsible for that utterly atrocious ending. I think they were both greatly dismayed that Hollywood decided to bastardize the original ending, which was brilliant, and replace it with stupid schlock.]. However, it is their earlier works that are the most brilliant. Gurland and Botko are fucked up geniuses, in the best way possible. Our mutual friend says that they are “criminally underappreciated” and that is a justifiably apropos description. Theyâ€™re like the Joseph Beuys of modern art house cinema.
Gurland and Botko pioneered a new form of mockumentary that skewers the documentary style of Nick Broomfield by inserting themselves into the films. Their egocentric style drastically alters the story they are trying to tell. They do this best in Mail-Order Wife. I had a lot of â€œholy shitâ€ moments while watching this. Itâ€™s a creepy, hilarious movie that investigates one manâ€™s decision to purchase an Asian mail-order bride named Lichi. The â€œdocumentarianâ€, played by Gurland funds the purchase in exchange for the rights to film the unfolding relationship between Adrian (the husband) and Lichi.
Things go terribly wrong when it is discovered that Adrian has been abusing Lichi. Lichi escapes to Andrewâ€™s home where he comforts her and tries to protect her from Adrianâ€™s wrath. Andrew falls in love with Lichi and their ensuing affair is unsettling. However, Lichi is not who she appears to be. As the chaos surrounding her grows, more people from the film crew and Andrewâ€™s family are drawn into the drama.
To its credit, this film suckered a lot of people (but not in a stupid Blair Witch viral campaign way). If you read reviews of the film, a lot of the viewers are angry because they didn’t understand that it was a mockumentary until the end credits rolled. It’s done so well, and so believably that its subject matter and execution provokes a palpable emotional reaction. This is the crux of the Gurland/Botko brand of filmmaking: unbelievable believability. Mail-Order Wife’s smart, alarming realism is a crude wink-and-nod at the camera. By the end, youâ€™ll hate everyone in this movie, and for some reason, this will satisfy you more than any sweet tale of redemption ever could.
NEXT…The Five Most Disturbing, Unsettling, and Altogether Hard To Watch Films on Netflix Instant.