Alfred Hitchcock said a lot of extremely astute things about films, but he was never more correct than when he said that "the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder."
In more civilised times, if you'd gone to see 2001: A Space Odyssey or Doctor Zhivago, you'd have been able to nip out for a wee and some popcorn during an intermission. The only way to get through Avengers: Endgame without dashing out was by drying yourself out for a couple of days beforehand.
No, the optimum length of a film is 90 minutes. Long enough to draw you fully into its world, short enough to necessitate judicious cutting of waffle, and just about trim enough to allow you time to do something else with your evening afterwards. These are the best 90-minuters on Netflix right now.
Eighth Grade (2018)
We've shouted for Eighth Grade before now, and by God we will not stop shouting for it until the number of people who've watched it matches up with its quality. Kayla is a very normal 13-year-old: she feels weird, and isolated, and uncertain, and doesn't know what she has to do to make herself seen by the boy she likes. In the final week of a hitherto disastrous eighth grade, she decides to reinvent herself. Given how 'The Kids These Days' get reflexively dismissed as shallow and self-absorbed and etc etc etc, Eighth Grade's sensitive, funny and hopeful outlook is refreshing and uplifting.
This meditative and jaw-slackeningly gorgeous documentary spends time with the unsung heroes of every mountaineering expedition, exploring Sherpas' culture and what the mountains on which they make their living mean within it. There's another thread too. Twenty-one-time Everest summiter Sherpa Phurba Tashi and Kiwi climber Russell Brice are at loggerheads: after an ice avalanche on Everest kills 16 Sherpas, Tashi and his fellow Sherpas go on strike; Brice suspects threats are being made.
My Octopus Teacher (2020)
Fresh from a best documentary feature win at this year's Oscars, now's a good time to get into this overwhelmingly lovely film. Filmmaker and free-diver Craig Foster spent a year hanging out with an octopus in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa (not continuously, obviously) and, slowly, bonded her and was invited into this little squidgy lady's world. However, things aren't always as idyllic as Ringo implied they were under the sea, in an octopus's garden in the shade: sharks are circling, and time waits for no mollusc.
Steve McQueen's first feature served notice of what was to come: a politically charged story which focuses, above all else, on the humanity of the people at the centre of it. Michael Fassbender is extraordinary as Bobby Sands, the leader of the second IRA hunger strike, as he and his comrades try to regain political prisoner status. The centrepiece is a 17-minute single take in which Liam Cunningham's Father Dominic Moran tries to talk Sands out of his stand, which Cunningham and Fassbender would practice 15 times a day while living together and nailed in five takes.
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
We've said before that this is the film Joker wishes it was, and we absolutely stand by that. Lynne Ramsay's brutal, lyrical, occasionally hallucinatory thriller sees Joaquin Phoenix play Joe, a man who rescues children and teenagers from highly organised and dangerous trafficking networks. He's enlisted to rescue the daughter of a New York senator, and has to get into a secretive brothel for VIPs. It's a taut and lean film, effortlessly updating and humanising the dangerous nocturnal outsider type of Taxi Driver, updating its misanthropic anti-hero and adding layers of unexpected tenderness and fantasy.
Sour Grapes (2016)
Back in 2008, Rudy Kurniawan was the toast of the wine world. This brash, exciting young expert who knew everything there was to know about the greatest wines in the world burst onto the scene, buying and selling Burgundy with an abandon which made everyone want to know him. But while his stock kept soaring, and his friends still defend him, he wasn't quite the 100 percent proof he claimed to be.
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
The 2014 Oscar winner for Best Documentary foregrounds the under-appreciated but essential talents who sing with the biggest artists in the world, but often remain anonymous to most people who see and hear them. It's a joyous, tender and sometimes melancholy film which gives long overdue recognition to the extraordinarily skilled singers who get so close to fame and fortune but often get neither.
"Some people will do anything to be famous," says Rolling Stones backing singer Lisa Fischer in the film. "I just wanted to sing."
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
After 20 years, the behind-the-scenes tapes of the making of Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon were finally released. They were apparently held back at the time because it was feared everyone would immediately see that Jim Carrey had turned into an enormous arse. It's fascinating to see just how truly, sun-blockingly colossal an arse Carrey managed to be in the name of embodying Kaufman. He was an absolute nightmare. It makes for a great documentary though, and Carrey's reflections on the whole experience 20 years on aren't much less eye-boggling than the stunts he pulled.
Don Jon (2013)
What happened to Joseph Gordon-Levitt? One minute he was riding high in Hollywood, ready to make his writer/actor/director debut in a film about a vaguely offensive Italian American caricature with an addiction to hardcore porn, deadlifts and ribbed vests, the next minute he was… ahh yes, that might have had something to do with it. The backlash came thick and fast, and perhaps rightfully so. But that doesn’t change the fact that Don Jon’s heart and message is in the right place. Gordon-Levitt’s fast-paced, Goodfellas-inflected film is an insightful, provocative, and brave take on the way that hardcore porn impacts young mens’ sexual and romantic lives. It’s also very, very funny, with brilliant performances from Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore and Gordon-Levitt himself. Hopefully it won't be too much longer before he returns to the director's chair.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
A stone-cold classic from legendary animation house Studio Ghibli and writer/director Hayao Miyazaki – often ranked as one of the best films ever made – set in post-war Japan. It tells the animistic story of two young girls who move to a lush rural community to be closer to their mother, who is recovering from an illness at a local hospital, and end up forming friendships with a group of mystical wood spirits. Amongst them stands a giant cat-like creature named Totoro, a character that has become a perennial symbol of childhood innocence and awe in Japanese pop culture. In terms of influence, the wide-eyed King of the Forest is akin to Mickey Mouse. My Neighbour Totoro should be the first step in your Studio Ghibli journey.
Three Identical Strangers (2018)
Three brothers – identical triplets – are separated at birth, but gradually find each other again. This sounds like a pretty simple documentary. It isn't. Boy, oh boy, oh boy, it isn't. The differences soon become apparent, and start to gradually pull the brothers apart, and the extraordinary circumstances of their original separation are revealed.
Easy A (2010)
The subgenre of teen films in which classic literature is transplanted into a middle class suburban high school is reliably excellent. Easy A ranks alongside Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You in those stakes, updating The Scarlet Letter and placing Emma Stone's Olive at its centre. A lie about sleeping with a boy from college gets out of control, and soon she's pretending she's slept with half of the school for reasons both noble and venal. Smart, sophisticated, and very funny.
A different kind of nature doc. Swooping, graceful shots of sternly unfeeling mountain peaks and face while Willem Dafoe reads from Robert Macfarlane's book Mountains of the Mind, an exploration of why people are drawn to scale great peaks despite it being demonstrably insane. "What is this strange force that draws us upwards? This siren song of the summit?," Dafoe growls ruminatively, backed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Porco Rosso (1992)
Now that Studio Ghibli's back catalogue's been on Netflix for a while, you've probably already spun through My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Ponyo and the other big ones. Porco Rosso's relatively uncelebrated, but it's a little gem. The 'red pig' of the title is an Italian former air ace who now chases 'sky pirates' around above the Adriatic, and who is also an anthropomorphic pig thanks to a curse. It's beautiful, droll and politically pointed.
Last Breath (2019)
The sea is scary. Cold, lonely, probably really soggy, and you might as well be on the surface of the moon for all the help that anyone could give you. This under-appreciated disaster doc is about exactly that nightmare scenario, played out through hauntingly grainy, genuine footage. While doing some repairs 100 metres down on the seabed, diver Chris Lemons' life support was cut, leaving him with no light, no heating for his diving suit, no radio, and only a few minutes of oxygen left.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
This one's very, very slightly over 90 minutes, but it's too good not to include. It's a sharp deconstruction of all those horror films where teens do self-evidently stupid things like splitting up to look for clues, as well as the hackneyed stereotypes who populate them: dumb jocks, ditzy cheerleaders, sloppy stoners and the like. It turns out they were being manipulated all along by forces beyond their reckoning, and now these teens are going to sort the shadowy powers-that-be out. Very funny, genuinely thrilling, and features a very young Chris Hemsworth.
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