Is 2018 the year Netflix finally wins an Oscar?
In 2015, the streaming site premiered the searing drama “Beasts of No Nation,” starring Idris Elba as the leader of an army of child soldiers in an unnamed West African nation. The movie got good reviews and played in a handful of theaters, making it eligible for an Academy Award. Many thought that at least Elba would get nominated for Best Actor.
But it wasn’t nominated for anything. Many observers thought Academy members had balked at the idea of honoring a Netflix movie over one that was released exclusively in theaters.
What a difference two years makes. In 2017, Netflix has become one of the major distributors of independent film, and plans to release a whopping 80 original movies in 2018. Major filmmakers like Martin Scorsese are flocking to work with Netflix, which reportedly offers a level of creative freedom that filmmakers rarely get from Hollywood studios.
So the time seems right for Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” which premiered last weekend on Netflix, to break through in awards season. But what really bolsters the drama’s chances of being nominated isn’t changing viewership trends or changing business models in the movie industry.
It’s that “Mudbound” is the best movie Netflix has made so far, and one of the best movies of the year.
Rees’ last theatrical film was the terrific, intimate teen drama “Pariah," but on “Mudbound,” she’s operating at another level in scope. She’s created a historical epic about two Americas — people living side by side but utterly separated by experiences — that resonates in modern times.
Adapted by Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams, and based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, “Mudbound” is set in rural Mississippi during and immediately after World War II. Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) are an African-American couple who have been toiling the land for years as tenant farmers, hoping to save up enough to buy a couple of acres to own. The actual landowners are a white couple, Henry and Laura McCallan (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan), who also farm.
Rees vividly evokes the dirt and sweat that are a hallmark of these families’ daily lives, often contrasting gorgeous skies against the muddy brown soil below. Life is hard for both families, but we see the built-in advantages that a white land-owning family has over a black tenant farmer family in the Jim Crow South. The system was built to reward one and punish the other.
Bringing change is the end of World War II, and the return home of two war heroes to the families. The McCallans welcome Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), an alcoholic traumatized by his experiences as a bomber pilot. The Jacksons are relieved to see their son Ronsel (Jason Campbell) return home, not knowing that he’s left behind a pregnant girlfriend, a white woman, in Europe.
The two veterans find themselves bonding over their shared wartime experiences. But friendship and respect between a black man and a white man is a dangerous thing in 1940s Mississippi, especially with Klansmen like Jamie’s father (Jonathan Banks of “Better Call Saul”) around. “Mudbound” builds tension as the two families move toward an inevitable, tragic collision.
Rees’ film operates on a large canvas, exploring big themes about race and class in America, and how harsh economic times can foster racial resentment among the working class. But it’s also a very intimate film. The screenplay shifts perspective between six or seven narrators, each telling their part of the story.
The blend of exterior action and interior monologue is expertly done to create a film that feels very much like a great American novel onscreen. I’d rather have seen “Mudbound” on the big screen — it feels too large for Netflix somehow. But see it any way you can.
Also on streaming: There will be no shortage of new stuff to stream over the long Thanksgiving weekend. Netflix has two new series this week. “Godless” is a Western drama created by Steven Soderbergh that premieres Wednesday, while “She’s Gotta Have It,” a series based on Spike Lee’s 1986 debut film, is reborn as a Netflix series on Thursday, with Lee directing every episode.
Hulu has the much-anticipated premiere of its first Marvel series, “Runaways,” on Tuesday. The adaptation of the popular comic book series follows a group of teenage friends who discover that their parents aren’t just uncool — they’re part of a global criminal organization.
And it’s a Thanksgiving Day tradition at Shout! Factory as shoutfactorytv.com streams the Mystery Science Theater 3000 “Turkey Day” marathon all day. The marathon features six episodes of the cult favorite series, which recently got new life on Netflix.