“And Now We’re Our Own Festival Programmers: Fun with Netflix”

Normally I would be making the journey to my local (or not-so-local) cinema to see a new film that I feel reasonably sure (or at least hopeful) that I would like (at this moment, life is too short to do otherwise).

However, since that option is no longer open to me (or anyone, for that matter), then like you, I’ve become the programmer of my own little Arts Festival.

Every day might be a little different, depending on whether I’m in the midst of “binge watching” an old (or new) television series or enjoying some cinematic comfort food, or even taking any number of virtual tours available to the home-bound traveler. So for the next few weeks, or longer, with your indulgence, I’ll share some options that might make your leisure time pass more agreeably—and since I am a film reviewer for NoHo, I will likely focus on films, but I won’t shy away from good television. Keep in mind this is a very subjective grouping of entertainment options, so though your tastes may not coincide with mine, I do feel confident that the choices are worth some of your time.

Today I choose to focus on Netflix, a streaming service that can be rewarding or infuriating, as new content appears and disappears without notice. (I’m still mourning the loss of the long-running British mystery series Midsomer Murders, but I have comfort in knowing you can find episodes on Acorn TV and even YouTube.) Of course, there are any number of fairly new releases—many of them Netflix films. I’ve already sung the praises of The Irishman and now the so-called excessive running time (which I did not feel was the case) should be even less of a deterrent to the prospective viewer. I would also recommend Marriage Story and The Two Popes from last year’s Oscar nominees, as both have fine performances and intelligent writing in abundance. In terms of a very recent release, you might give Spenser Confidential a chance, as Mark Wahlberg reunites with director Peter Berg to provide dogged private eye Spenser with an entertaining back story marked by plenty of irreverent humor and some good supporting turns by Winston Duke as Spenser’s intimidating sidekick Hawk, and Alan Arkin as Spenser’s old pal. It’s only loosely based on a Spenser novel, so try not to have any preconceived notions, and I’m pretty sure you’ll have a good time.

As for television series, there is something for practically everyone—if you need to revisit Mad Men or Breaking Bad, no need to worry, they’re both on Netflix. If you’ve been yearning for uncut Twilight Zone episodes (apart from the seasonal marathons), the entire series is here for your perusal. However, if you’d like a more modern twist—and one that is almost consistently downbeat (albeit with dark humor), you may want to try Black Mirror. Here technology, irony and emotions go hand in hand in providing generally compelling viewing.

If you’re in the mood for murder, Netflix is a virtual repository of intriguing crime dramas that are both plot-driven and anchored by well-drawn characters. Among British imports Broadchurch (co-starring a pre-Oscar Olivia Colman) is a consistently good police procedural while the gentle Father Brown investigates murders in and around his parish (which, together with Midsomer Murders’ fictional county of Midsomer, has almost as high a mortality rate as Murder She Wrote’s Cabot Cove) while butting heads with the ineffectual police constables. Peaky Blinders is far grittier, starring Gillian Murphy as a gang leader in Britain in the aftermath of World War One. My current favorites are Ozark, now in its third season and starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney (both excellent) as a couple engaging in keeping their family afloat amid some very dangerous criminal activities in the title region;  Bloodline is also superb (at least in its first season—the other two are pretty good also), with its setting of the Florida keys submerged in noir-ish atmosphere with its depiction of troubled family relationships that come to the forefront when a black sheep brother returns. Kyle Chandler’s sheriff with secrets heads a fine cast including Ben Mendelesohn, Norbert Leo Butz, Sam Shepard, and Sissy Spacek.

Then again, you may just be looking for some skillful and amusing (even heartfelt) comedies (albeit with serious undertones). Here are some recommendations. First and foremost, check out The Kaminsky Method starring Michael Douglas as an occasionally self-important acting coach and Alan Arkin as his long-time, long-suffering friend. Much of the charm is in the byplay between two actors giving career performances, but there are several guest stars of note (Ann-Margret) and a consistently high level of writing. Plus, it’s only sixteen episodes in total, so what are you waiting for? Grace and Frankie stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as long-time “friends” who become closer after their spouses (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) leave them…for each other. The result is far from a one-joke show and is quite funny and poignant in its depiction of both family and mortality. It is also beautifully acted by everyone involved—and there are six seasons worth of episodes. On a slightly more mordant note (but still with considerable comic vitality), there is After Life starring Ricky Gervais as a widower trying to find meaning after the loss of his wife (as only Ricky Gervais can—with cutting humor), as well as Dead to Me starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini as women who meet at a grief-counseling center—and who share a not entirely unexpected connection.

Finally, my current favorite Netflix show—and one that is currently shooting its final season is the French comedy-drama Call My Agent about a high-profile, high-price talent agency that is scrambling to hold on to financial security after the untimely death of its founder. All the major characters are scheming, unscrupulous, ambitious—and strangely sympathetic and likable. There is also the benefit of real-life stars (Isabelle Huppert, Monica Bellucci) appearing as exaggerated version of themselves. Strongly recommended. Until next time, be entertained…and stay safe.