What if the on-demand movie site that everybody subscribes to just wasn’t very good at putting on movies?
Yes, I mean Netflix.
Last week, after publishing the third in an irregular series of COVID-era columns recommending films available on streaming platforms, I got a fair amount of pushback from readers wondering why most of my suggestions could be found everywhere except the one service to which most people belong. It’s a valid question, even if it rests on a logical fallacy — that Netflix, the company with 193 million subscribers worldwide, should also have the biggest and best selection of movies.
In fact, the opposite turns out to be true.
The way I put together those recommendation columns is that I look back over nearly 20 years of Boston Globe movie reviews and cherry-pick 10 or so titles that a) I thought were pretty good and b) have maybe fallen through the cracks for many readers. Then I plug the titles into the search box at JustWatch (www.justwatch.com/us), an extremely useful website that tracks where a given title is available for free streaming, rental VOD, or digital purchase.
Trust me, I’m not consciously excluding Netflix; the service just isn’t turning up in the majority of my searches. Which is interesting: Netflix not carrying a group of movies selected at random — other than the variable “Ty likes them” — suggests that the service’s film pickings are slimmer than many realize, despite the company’s successful market brand as the Place That Has Everything. Compared to, say, Amazon, Apple’s iTunes, GooglePlay, and YouTube, it doesn’t. Why? And what movies on Netflix are worth watching?
The company began, of course, as a DVD rental-by-mail business (and still provides that service to a dwindling band of diehards) but made the move to streaming video in 2007. In 2013, the first “Netflix original” appeared, in the form of the series “House of Cards”; further series and feature films followed. The company now has production deals with any number of Hollywood players, from studios to directors to stars. It bankrolls prestige films such as “Roma” and “The Irishman” for the annual Oscar race. Whatever Netflix is about, it’s no longer movie rentals.
These days, if your household is like mine, you use the service to watch older TV shows (from here and abroad), Netflix-branded TV series and movies, and the occasional Hollywood blockbuster. It’s the first two categories that matter most to the company. Because Netflix doesn’t rely on ads but on monthly subscriptions, the business model is organized around subscriber retention. Buzzed-about original series like “Russian Doll,” true-crime documentaries like “Wild Wild Country,” Y/A romances (”Always Be My Maybe”), and sleaze (”365 Days”) keep people signed up, although who’s watching how much is open to question. Along with other streaming services, Netflix is notoriously cagey about its viewing statistics. The company recently announced that the made-for-Netflix action movie “Extraction,” with Chris Hemsworth, had 99 million views, a number that becomes meaningless when you learn that Netflix considers a “view” as little as two minutes in length.
And since the Netflix “window” for new theatrical releases doesn’t kick in until after Amazon, Apple, and other services have had a crack, there’s less incentive for the service to highlight or curate its movie offerings. A scroll through the Netflix film listings reveals a hodgepodge of titles with no guidance beyond the most basic genre categorizing or algorithmic match-up. Quantity, not quality, is the strategy — sheer tonnage, or the illusion of same. Because when you get right down to it, there aren’t that many movies on Netflix at all.
The British-based What’s On Netflix (whats-on-netflix.com), a website not affiliated with the company but keeping track of its offerings (since Netflix doesn’t), generally counts around 1,000 movies on the service in any given month and keeps an A-to-Z list that can be filtered by genre and decade. (Forget about older fare: Of the 949 film titles currently tracked by What’s On Netflix, 102, or 11 percent, were made in the 20th century, and the bulk of those are from the ’80s and ’90s.)
Speaking by phone, website founder Kasey Moore said he has definitely noticed a move away from films over the years, especially now that competitors with content libraries of their own (like Disney+ and NBCUniversal’s Peacock) are holding onto their titles. In addition, Moore believes that Netflix is using star power to “pad out” the blanks in its catalog: “If you’re searching for Chris Evans and none of his licensed movies are available, at least Netflix can serve up their Original.”
There are good movies on Netflix — and by that I mean movies that are entertaining and challenging and sometimes both at the same time — but they’re thrown together willy-nilly with an awful lot of junk, and there’s no rating system to act as a guide. (You can vote a movie thumbs up or thumbs down but can’t see anyone else’s ratings or aggregate figures.)
You’re on your own, in other words, and since Netflix is the VOD brand leader — even if it acts differently from most of the other services — it’s under no pressure to change. You want curated? Kanopy and Hoopla, two services affiliated with public libraries, put their wares out with forethought and intelligence, and Criterion Channel is for the hard-core connoisseur. You want to find some decent films on Netflix? OK, here are 10.
20th Century Women (2016) A single mom tries to raise her son amid the tumult of late-‘70s California. But the mom is played by Annette Bening, and she shoulda won an Oscar.
The B-Side (2016) Elsa Dorfman died in May, but Errol Morris’s doc is a fond tribute to an artist whose large-format family portraits served as Warhol silkscreens for Greater Boston.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020) Funny, warm, eye-opening documentary about the Catskills camp that became a seedbed for the disabled-rights movement. You want feel-good? This is feel-good.
Menashe (2017) An eccentric widower in Brooklyn’s tight-knit Hasidic community has to clean up his act if he wants his son back. A quiet joy.
Mississippi Grind (2015) Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn as two beautiful losers gambling their way across the South. So atmospheric you can feel the felt on the blackjack tables.
Mudbound (2017) From director Dee Rees (“Pariah”), a powerful saga of two families, Black and white, in World War II-era Mississippi. Excellent performances.
Private Life (2018) Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as aging New York hipsters who get the bad idea to have a baby using a beloved niece’s eggs. A low-key, insightful human comedy from Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages”).
Shadow (2019) Save this one for the biggest TV screen you have: Zhang Yimou’s visually ravishing epic is a grand melodrama set in China’s distant past.
Slow West (2015) A western picaresque balanced between humor and mayhem, about a naïve young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) staying ahead of evil Ben Mendelsohn.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) Outrageous horror comedy that sends up the teens-stranded-in-the-woods genre. What if the chainsaw-wielding hillbillies were actually misunderstood nice guys?