This morning Tokyo time, or afternoon/evening US time, Netflix unexpectedly released The Cloverfield Paradox (Julius Onah, 2018), following no long marketing campaign, no press junkets, no big premiere, and no advance critics’ reviews. The film appears to be a more traditional follow-up to the original Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008) than 2016 sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg) turned out to be, and may give us some insight into the circumstances surrounding the alien invasion of the first film.
The Cloverfield Paradox was suddenly dropped on the world following a Superbowl ad, released just hours after this one and only public showing of its trailer, and it has been fascinating following the social media response to this news, underlining the viral marketing genius of releasing a much-anticipated sequel with almost no prior warning. So unexpected and so significant an event was it, that it seems to have even unseated both the actual Superbowl result, and the new trailer for Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018) as the most talked about topic on the Internet right now, at least on our Twitter timeline.
2018 is proving to be a good year so far for diversity, with Rachel Morrison becoming the first female cinematographer to be nominated for an Oscar, Marvel’s Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) tracking to be a massive hit, and now The Cloverfield Paradox reaching our screens with its diverse cast and crew. It will be interesting to monitor how the film affects Netflix’s audience figures, and whether the online streaming platform will see a large growth as a result. Of particular interest to us at English Language Film School Japan, is how the film will be fare here in Japan, critically and numerically.
Indeed, whilst Netflix has generally struggled in the Asia Pacific region, a recent article by the Hollywood Reporter suggests that the number of Japanese subscribers doubled in 2017, from just over one million in 2016, to over two million. Reports state that Japan now has the largest Netflix library in the world, suggesting the stiff competition from the likes of Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu has forced it to up its game. Although Netflix’s marketshare may still be lower than in the UK for example (six million subscribers to twenty-seven million households in the UK, versus two million subscribers to fifty-three million households in Japan), in terms of content Netflix provides plenty to watch. I would cautiously infer that based on Cloverfield’s original success and popularity in Japan (the film’s second-biggest overseas-box-office haul was in Japan, behind only the UK), Paradox will help the platform continue its rapid growth here.
We are not sponsored by Netflix, but I am a fan of the service, so I have decided to list ten personal recommendations from the Japanese Netflix library, which I think will be of interest to filmmakers and film lovers alike. This is not a best-of, and is heavily influenced by my personal tastes, so many films on this list may not appeal to all readers.
Furthermore, I have focused on smaller films made in the past decade that you may have overlooked. Films that have generally not seen huge awards-season success and tend not to feature A-list stars. They are interesting, often extreme, examples of unconventional storytelling, films that for the most part reject the glitz of Hollywood spectacle. At least one is a cutting Hollywood satire, that attempts to hold a mirror to, and destroy the glamorous image of American film industry. All of them are unafraid to have an opinion, and all of them should be educational for storytellers.
The List, In No Particular Order.
1. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015)
An adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, this 1976-set film follows 15-year-old Minnie as she embarks on an affair with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend. A phenomenally honest and nuanced depiction of teen sexuality and anxiety, which never feels exploitative or pornographic, it does not glamorise Minnie’s lifestyle, but neither does it condemn, and is a fantastic example of how to tackle a difficult subject. After watching the film, I recommend listening to the Scriptnotes podcast episode, ‘Diary of a First-Time Director’, to hear director Marielle Heller on how she wrote and shot the film.
2. Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016)
Another coming-of-age film, Divines follows best friends Dounia and Maimouna as they join local drug dealer Sophia’s gang in an effort to prove that they are capable of getting rich. Set in the banlieues of Paris, the film addresses race and class issues in France, underlining the poverty and limited social mobility present in the country. It’s worth a watch despite the similar themes to La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) and whilst it received awards recognition at Cannes and the French Césars, it has been largely overlooked elsewhere.
3. Ginger & Rosa (Sally Potter, 2012)
The threat of nuclear holocaust hangs over this quiet 1962-set British drama. Similarly to the above films, it focuses on two 17-year-old friends, Ginger and Rosa, the latter of whom starts a relationship with the former’s father. The focus here is on betrayed friendship, poor parenting, and exploitative adults, and I recommend watching this film to compare the storytelling choices with Diary of a Teenage Girl. Yet another film on similar themes would be Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto (2013), also worthy of viewing to see how its story is told differently to the above two.
4. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, 2014)
Cronenberg’s best film in years follows a group of unsavoury characters in an around the Hollywood film industry, including Julianne Moore’s fantastically-performed fading star, Havana Segrand, and Mia Wasikowska’s ever-creepy pyromaniac Agatha Weiss who takes on a job as the former’s assistant. Haunting, unpleasant, and occasionally erupting in scenes of brutal violence, the film is a shocking condemnation of the Hollywood fame machine.
5. The Canyons (Paul Schrader, 2013)
Continuing the theme of Hollywood, my next pick is The Canyons. Slated by critics, and now brought into further disrepute by legal controversy surrounding James Deen, I read this film as a fascinating essay on the long-heralded death of cinema, or at least the theatrical cinema experience. How telling is it that the film covers jealousy, smartphones, Lindsay Lohan and a porn star? The film explicitly begins with a montage of rotting, deserted movie theatres, the sex tapes Lohan and Deen’s characters record hint at the internet’s greater pull (pointing towards both easy access to pornography, and the likes of YouTube which have replaced the movies for 21st-century kids), and a considerable portion of the plot is about a failing film production. The film was apparently rejected by SXSW because there is “an ugliness and a deadness to it,” but I would argue that this is precisely why it is so great.
6. The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015)
One of The Canyons writer, Bret Easton Ellis’s favourite films of 2015, The Invitation is a slow-burning horror/thriller about a dinner party from hell. Ellis’ stamp of approval probably means less now than it did in the 1980s and 1990s, and I probably appreciate it for different reasons to him, but it’s still a great single-location thrill ride. Does the theme of death cult and the Hollywood Hills setting have something to say about the film industry?
7. White Girl (Elizabeth Wood, 2016)
Homeland actor Morgan Saylor plays a white, middle-class university student who moves into an impoverished neighbourhood in Queens. The film takes aim at white privilege and gentrification, contrasting Leah’s (Saylor) superficially comfortable yet ultimately corrupt world with that of her Puerto Rican lover, the kind, gentle drug dealer Blue (Brian Marc). Largely inspired by director Wood’s own experiences, much of the film is shot in a mixture of gritty hand-held immediacy and golden sun-kissed beauty, and is reminiscent of early Harmony Korine or Larry Clark.
8. Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)
One half quietly observational drama, one half desperate crime thriller, Victoria originally made headlines for its single-take cinematography. The film, which follows cafe worker Victoria on a night out in Berlin that goes very very wrong when she becomes embroiled in a heist with four men, was apparently mostly improvised, and the production had sufficient budget for only three single-shot takes. The cinematography is of course a significant achievement, but the film is at its best not during the high point of greatest spectacle but the quieter, more intimate moments between characters.
9. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (Macon Blair, 2017)
One of my favourite films of last year, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a slightly bizarre comedy thriller starring Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood as two social rejects on the hunt for the former’s stolen possessions. Whilst the film is mostly a comedy, the few brief moments of violence feel very serious and very shocking. Even when it is antagonists at the receiving end of brutality, the violence is uncomfortable rather than glamorous. It strikes a perfect tonal balance between lightness and darkness, and is an example of the fresh storytelling coming out of the American indie scene.
10. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2013)
Starring Macon Blair (director of I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore) and directed by his long-time collaborator Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin is a bleak thriller about a beach bum taking revenge on his parents’ murderer, a member of an infamous local crime family. The film avoids such genre conventions as shaky camera and fast cuts, and is instead a slow-burning ride through the Virginia countryside. The traumatic brutality is reminiscent of the way Michael Haneke handles violence: utterly unpleasant. The film should be of particular interest to filmmakers for its modest, crowdfunded budget, and the crew largely made up of the filmmakers’ friends and family (at least four Blairs were involved with the production).
Many of these films will be of particular interest to indie filmmakers, as their budgets are all on the lower end of the scale. Blue Ruin and The Canyons were each shot for under $500,000, although Maps to the Stars bucks this trend with a budget of $13 million, no doubt thanks to the A-list cast and director. Furthermore, two of these films are Netflix originals, two raised at least part of their budgets via crowdfunding, and two could not have been made were it not for 21st century technology. Returning back to The Cloverfield Paradox, the above confirms, at least to me, that contrary to The Canyons’ central thesis, the feature film still has some life left in it as a contemporary form despite the move towards online streaming.