Behind the Scenes

Recommended: Netflix Discoveries and Observations from 2020.

Netflix is overwhelming. We all know this.

The sheer amount of things you can watch on there is staggering. And we also know from research that too much choice is not good for us — it does not make us happy:

Research now shows that there can be too much choice; when there is, consumers are less likely to buy anything at all, and if they do buy, they are less satisfied with their selection.

The global streaming platform has definitely become the epitome of this problem. So much so that they actually offer a “play something randomly” button on their entry page now, to relieve users of the burden of choosing.

I was beginning to suspect that this might actually have a negative impact on my ability to enjoy films: There is so much out there — it seemed to make me less and less willing to actually follow through with any one film or series. Whenever something happened in a film or on a show that I didn’t like or enjoy in the moment — which is normal; all films are about conflict, which is sometimes unpleasant! — I would simply jump ship and watch something else. No commitment, no follow-through, just hopping about. And at the end of the evening I would lazily return to “Big Bang Theory” (which I play on loop when I cook or eat by myself — it’s my default switching-my-brain-off show, akin to a “zen music playlist” on Spotify), to zone out, before going to bed. And in this way, I was apparently “weaning myself off” of the actual film-watching experience — because of an over-abundance of choice.

Then I was watching Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” the other day, and something dawned on me: Very often, the problem is not Netflix — instead, it is too many films and shows filled with characters I simply do not care about. Characters that leave me cold and uninterested — or worse: actively unwilling to follow them into their conflicts. Eastwood’s grumpy old man in that film was the perfect example. The film spends about 25 minutes introducing me to an unpleasant, grumpy, selfish old man. Nothing about his character is likeable — or interesting. Nothing at all.

I understand, of course, that a film’s purpose is to take one or several characters on a journey, and allow them to transform and learn something about themselves. And yet — if I find a character so unpleasant to begin with that I simply do not care what happens to her or him, then, well, I’ll simply switch off. Why spend two hours of my life (or a lot more, if it’s a show) “in the company” of someone whom I simply do not like? Life’s too precious. And so, after about half an hour, I stopped watching “The Mule” — I just wasn’t interested in what was going to happen to that old fart, as he was beginning his drug-running work for the cartel. (The only worse type are characters that seem completely implausible, or act in ways nobody understands. They ruin a show or a film within seconds.)

Mind you — I don’t need Disney-esque cuddly characters that make you vomit from all the sugar they’re coated with. I am happy to encounter real characters, with flaws and dark sides and anger and pain and all the rest of it. But they also need something human, emotional, relatable. Years ago, I saw no need to continue watching “The Sopranos” — for the same reason. I had finished season 1, and somewhere in season 2 I realised that no one — absolutely nobody — on that show had anything to offer that I liked. So I stopped watching. David Simon’s magnificent show “The Wire” was the exact opposite — I liked almost every character on that show, be they drug lords, beat cops, or corrupt politicians. (Nobody beats Omar Little, of course. Nobody. But that’s another story.) Most of them were also selfish, cruel, spineless, or a combination of these and many other flaws. But something about each and every one of them was also relatable, real, and endearing. It became my favourite TV show of all time.

This blog and website is entirely dedicated to our documentary film project about the political fight for Wellbeing Economies. But after I had had these observations, I wanted to publish a little list of fictional films and TV shows, at the end of this year, that I did thoroughly enjoy. If only to prove to myself that I can still follow through! And besides, since this website is all about making a film, why not add a little shout-out to work that I truly enjoyed — to mark the end of this crazy Pandemic-riddled 2020?

One show on Netflix that hit all the right buttons, in terms of interesting and relatable yet profoundly flawed characters, was “The Sinner“. It centers on Bill Pullman’s awkward detective Ambrose who is solving one murder mystery per season. He is clearly a weirdo, with awkward ways of dealing with people. And so are his suspects. The show’s premise is that we know who the killer is, we just have no idea why they killed their victims. And so you meet these very charismatic yet clearly deranged or disturbed people, and you join Ambrose on his quest to find out why they did what they did. Really interesting. And quite dark, at times.

A couple of weeks ago, Netflix made “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” available for streaming. I didn’t watch it on Netflix, I watched it a while back on DVD (I think). But that film hits hard — in such surprising ways. At first you think that it’s a small straightforward story from a small straightforward town: A mother is giving the police chief a hard time because she thinks he didn’t do enough to find her daughter’s killer. But the way the story builds and builds and builds, and adds yet another layer of drama and then one more on top of that — it’s awesome. And again, it’s peopled with incredibly interesting characters. Frances McDormand’s “mother” is the best example: Very often she is incredibly unpleasant to people. But you feel with her, you want her to succeed. Of course — after what she’s been through!

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Lovesick“. There are no lives at stake, no killers to be hunted, no earth to be saved — it’s only three twens who are trying to find love in modern day London. Which sounds a bit lame, and which is also a bit predictable — but wait until you meet them: Gloriously fun people! Sometimes you want to hug them, sometimes you want to hit them, but they never leave you not caring.

For the past couple of years (or so) I’ve developed a new habit: I’m watching “The Equalizer” at least once a year. What I love about it is simply observing Denzel Washington as the title character do his thing. He is a damaged soul — as a retired military-secret-spy-elite-something, he has cut his ties with the rest of the world and leads a very quiet life of simplicity. Then, one day a person that he is sympathetic to gets in trouble. And he cannot help himself, he has to get involved. What happens then is one of the most fun revenge phantasies that you can see on the screen — and not the type where gallons of blood are splattered everywhere. Quite the contrary: The violence is sparse, contained, meticulously handed out. In a sense, the film is almost understated with the violence. And lovely that way.

If you want to create a very interesting contradictory Denzel evening with two films in a row, you can add “Training Day” to the mix. The film is from 2001, but it holds up well, and has Washington in one of his meanest roles ever — while Ethan Hawke is standing his ground as a rookie cop that has to deal with all the nasty that Denzel is handing out.

For a change of pace, with animation, sci-fi and robots, I’d recommend “Love, Death & Robots“. It’s a collection of 18 animation short films in all kinds of styles and designs. And they all deal with, well, love, death and robots. I really enjoyed this, because visually they are often stunning, and many of the characters are really interesting. Plus, the snack size of the films (they’re all between 6 and 17 minutes long) makes them very easy to enjoy outside the couch potato setting. Even as a download on the metro, etc.

I don’t usually binge-watch. After an episode or two of a show, I tend to need a bit of a palette cleanser, maybe even delay the next episodes by a day or two. But with “Godless“, this was different. I think I watched the 7-part miniseries in 2019, and loved every bit of it — I burned right through it. For one, it’s fun to see the usually good-natured Jeff Daniels with a big old beard as a nasty villain. But more importantly, the women on the show really make it what it is. You need to like Westerns, of course, to enjoy it. But if you want a Western that shows you fierce bad-ass women standing their ground in a violent world of (fairly) ignorant bastard men, this is incredible fun.

Everyone knows that Joaquin Phoenix kicks ass. If you want to see him do that in a film made by super-inspired film maker Lynne Ramsay, with a visual style all her own, I’d very much recommend “You Were Never Really Here“. That film is a bit like “The Equalizer’s” weirdly deranged younger brother. Here, Phoenix is also a very damaged veteran of some government killing business, and now he takes on a child-sex-abuse-pornography ring that’s protected from very high up in the political system. But the film looks and feels nothing like what I just wrote — watching it is a little like experiencing it from within the mind of the protagonist. And also, Ramsay has found a very interesting way of (not) showing the violence.

Aaron Sorkin writing court room dramas is like Tiger Woods playing golf. A man in his element. I very much enjoyed “The Trial of the Chicago 7“, which came out as a Netflix film this year. Also, it taught me a few things about what happened in the USA back then, when the country very much disagreed on what is right and what is wrong — just like the country is doing today.

Speaking of Sorkin, he was also involved in writing the script for “Moneyball“. The film doesn’t look too exciting on the face of it: a story about statistics in Baseball? How fun is that going to be? Particularly for a European who, by default, cannot understand a damn thing about Baseball anyway? It turns out: Pretty fun! For one, thanks to two very interesting characters — Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill (!) are playing their incredibly understated, quietly intense characters in this David-vs-Goliath story that has you rooting for them even if you don’t understand a thing about Baseball. I really liked it, I’ve already seen it twice.

I do understand football a wee bit better (and I mean the European style — where feet actually matter in the kicking of the ball across the field!), but that is not why my absolutely favourite show on Netflix this year must have been “The English Game“. It’s just a gem of a six-episode miniseries that tells another David-vs.Goliath story — about how football became a professional sport, and what that meant for poor workers from Scotland and snobby nobles from London, and what they could or did not learn from each other. Absolutely delightful.

I am currently right in the middle of “Manhunt: Unabomber” — a show that is a real positive surprise. First of all, I know preciously little about Ted Kaczynski and what he did, and the show does present some of the historical facts. But secondly, it does not shy away from allowing the viewer to find Kaczinsky’s thinking reasonable, compelling even. His analysis of what’s wrong with the world was prescient then, and is quite pertinent today. His method of building bombs and killing people was just extremely misguided and wrong, of course. But that does not mean he didn’t point out real problems that threaten our world today. I am really enjoying the show.

Katherine Trebeck, one of the protagonists of our film, and an Aussie expat in Scotland, turned me on to the next show: I had started watching “Secret City” a while back, it looked like an Australian House of Cards type of thing. But I gave up quickly after the very first episode — it was so full of information, jargon, and what seemed like Australian political insider information and facts that I simply couldn’t keep up. It just seemed too much work. But Katherine warmly recommended the show, so I gave it another go. It turned out that the pilot episode was the problem: They crammed it so full of information that it became almost unwatchable. But then it let off a bit, became better paced, and turned into quite a fun take on the whole Snowden-NSA-data collection controversy from an Australian point of view (which we don’t usually get here in Europe). And it also had a nice element of Western-Chinese relations and mutual spying thrown in.

Staying down under, I also liked “Deep Water“, an Aussie cop show about a couple of detectives investigating horrible crimes against gay men in present and past Australia.

And now I will end my Netflix list with a complete surprise and absolute killer show, once again from Australia: “Nanette“, a one hour stand-up comedy special by Hannah Gadsby. It moved me, it made me laugh, it made me cry, I have never seen anything like it. And I’m not going to spoil why, or what is so special about it — just watch it, and your life will be better for it!

And that’s it from here, for this year. May 2021 bring us things we don’t even dare dream about. And I do mean that politically. Happy New Year!