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Netflix’s Marco Polo Is Everything That’s Wrong With Game of Thrones

Despite its sumptuous displays of feudal opulence — cavalries, silk gowns, all the naked female extras money can buy — Netflix’s Marco Polo feels distinctly like scraps. Turgid, fatuous, and humorless, the streaming site’s newest series is a grave miscalculation of what has made Game of Thrones, its obvious model, such a TV phenomenon. Marco Polo borrows from the HBO institution its most sensationalistic and/or problematic qualities — its unforgiving violence, aggressive male gaze, exoticizing of non-Western cultures — while neglecting the nuts and bolts that make Thrones great: its urgent plotting, vivid characterizations, and meticulous world-building.

On paper, Marco Polo held enormous promise: a reported $90 million budget for its 10-episode debut season (significantly more than the $60 million HBO spent on Game of Thrones‘ first year); an audience already primed for some light homework to keep up with intricate royal intrigue involving faraway lands and unusual names; and well-known historical personages (brand familiarity!) whose stories have rarely been told in mainstream media, thus avoiding remake fatigue.

And even its iffy Last Samurai-esque white-guy-in-Asia premise shouldn’t be an immediate deal-breaker. Netflix’s best series to date, Orange Is the New Black, boasts some of the small screen’s most fully realized characters of color — all of whom owe their existence to the dramedy’s white protagonist and creator Jenji Kohan’s “Trojan horse” strategy.

In some respects, Kohan’s plan worked too well. The blonde, upper-middle-class Piper (Taylor Schilling), our entrée into Litchfield Penitentiary, has been deemed by many fans to be the show’s least interesting character, even an entirely disposable presence. Marco Polo shares with OITNB a white audience-identification character who isn’t exactly setting the world on fire with charisma, wit, or heroism. The problem with the 12th-century Mongolia-set epic, though, is that none of the other characters make up for Marco’s bland hunkiness.

Marco Polo‘s problems start pretty much straightaway. (I’ve seen the first four episodes.) In the pilot, the young Venetian merchant (played by Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy) is offered up to Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) — “the richest, most powerful king on the face of this earth” — by Papa Polo. Marco is then called a slave, a servant, and a prisoner by the rest of the court, but one who receives lessons in kung fu, calligraphy, horseback riding, and falconry. It’s unclear where the European adventurer stands in the khan’s imperial hierarchy, and the series doesn’t seem all that interested in figuring it out, thus forgoing the necessary pilot storyline of almost every show in which the fish-out-of-water protagonist finds their place in a new world. Marco’s purgatorial statuslessness makes even less sense given that he’s the main character of a court drama, a genre based entirely on jockeying for position and power.

To be sure, creator John Fusco ensures that Marco is only a (station-less) cog in a vast imperial machine. The khan is cosmopolitan enough to recognize that the outsider’s perspective that Marco offers can be valuable, but rarely consults him about the issue foremost on his mind: when and how to invade the failing Song Dynasty, now established in southern China. Led by a boy king after the death of the elderly emperor, the Chinese court is under threat of an internal coup from the ambitious prime minister Sidao (Chin Han), who sends his newly widowed (and apparent sex-genius) sister Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) to join the khan’s harem and become one of his concubines, or at least his bedside confidante. Mei Lin’s arrival in the khan’s bed arouses the suspicions and jealousies of the khan’s most prized wife, Chabi (Joan Chen). Meanwhile, the khan argues with his resentful adult son Jingim (Remy Hii) about adopting Mongolian versus Chinese culture, but because it’s never explained what those cultures mean, other than that the Mongolians consider themselves slightly more butch than their enemies, none of these conversations actually offer much insight into the characters.

Marco Polo certainly boasts a wide canvas, but it’s actually not much more than a chessboard. The players are frustratingly plastic, with only the next move in mind, and so joyless and fancifully cruel that most of the characters can’t help being read as stereotypes of evil Oriental mustache-twirlers. The khan orders the execution of a horse-robber, shruggingly explaining to Marco that the poor man must give up his life if he doesn’t have any horses or offspring with which to compensate the victim. And in the most gruesome scene in the first four episodes, Sidao breaks the foot bones of his dance-loving young niece with his bare hands, promising her that this ruthless maiming will make her more beautiful, when he’s really just preparing her to be sold off as a royal hostage.

Then there are the out-and-out groan-worthy characters, seen in a thousand-and-one other movies, like the calmly abusive kung fu master Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) and the Mongolian princess, Kokachin (Zhu Zhu), who’s inexplicably making googly eyes at Marco because, well, every captured white explorer is irresistible to ethnic princesses. (It’s science.) Sorely lacking on the show is any semblance of a sense of humor, and it’s hard not to wonder if this is the case because there are no stereotypes about Asians being funny. Even if there were jokes, they might not be heard, for the mostly American, Canadian, and British actors of Asian descent who make up the cast speak in a peculiar and highly varying accent that’s not only distracting but mutilates their enunciation. Not afforded the gift of gab, of course, are the dozens of female bodies in the harem scenes, writhing in perpetual lesbian orgies. (You know you’re fit for the khan when you don’t ever need to take a water break.)

Shot in Italy, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia, Marco Polo offers plenty of landscape porn and splendid production design, from the Empress’s elaborate hair ornaments to the blue-green-gray latticework behind the khan’s throne, which allows him to see his subjects much better than they can see him. The actual people involved, though, aren’t afforded nearly such detailed consideration. Say what you will about Game of Thrones, but at least the show makes you care when it’s casually slaughtering its characters. But nobody bats an eye when you’re just shredding cardboard.

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It’s Conservationists vs. Oil and Militias in the Stunner Virunga

Here’s a question the rest of us are lucky never to have had to think about: How many people does it take to bear away the corpse of a grown gorilla Early in Virunga, Orlando von Einsiedel’s stunning heartbreaker of a doc, we see men, a dozen or so, carrying one great beast sprawled out on a funeral litter. That scene upsets on a primal level, even as it heartens: At least people have the decency to treat the death of one of the world’s 900 or so remaining mountain gorillas with solemnity.

There are more upsetting scenes to come, especially some hidden-camera doozies that stir the opposite of that conciliatory human warmth. British oil company SOCO has won the right to conduct seismic testing in the search for drillable oil in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site housing about half of the last mountain gorillas plus many of the other animals you dream of when you dream of Africa. The park has survived poaching, an ongoing civil war, a refugee crisis, and other attempts at exploitation. Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode has vowed to keep drilling from Virunga, but he faces death threats from local rebel groups who have apparently partnered with SOCO — and who now seem invested in chasing the park staff out of Virunga.

Journalist Melanie Gouby, meanwhile, has finagled her way into dinners with SOCO employees; unaware she’s taping them, they speak casual horrors: “The best solution, effective for everyone, is to recolonize these countries,” says the company’s field operations manager. (He’s since been fired.) Of the Congolese people, he adds: “They are like children, actually. They aren’t mature enough, I’d say.”

Gutsy Gouby also films interviews with the man in charge of the M23 rebel group, who suggests he’s made deals with SOCO to clear park officials from Virunga — Gouby captures him fantasizing about how much money even the teensiest percentage would be worth. In a statement at the end of the film, SOCO insists it has no relationship with M23, that the employees and contractors Gouby records do not speak for the company, and that nobody working for the oil company was “formally present” the day that M23 soldiers stormed into the park itself. Virunga shows us de Merode and his staff armed and waiting at a shelter housing gorillas, ready to quite literally defend the last of a species against the worst of global capitalism.

Yes, all that sounds grueling. But Virunga comes to us under the aegis of Netflix, which has more data than anyone else on just how far viewers actually make it into movies. Perhaps that’s why, after a thumbnail of Congo history, Virunga offers so much life and beauty: There’s the usual nature-doc wilderness photography, much of it grand, but also glorious time with gorillas who seem to consider park rangers something like family. The fights Virunga documents couldn’t feel more urgent. This is one of the year’s most compelling and important films.

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Is TV Really Kinder to Older Actresses?

Viola Davis has two Oscar nominations, nearly six dozen acting credits, and the loyal adoration of critics and cinephiles. But there’s one thing the gifted thespian — still best known as a co-star in The Help — still can’t land: a starring role in the movies. Davis played supporting roles in a trio of films last year, and appears in another two (or four, depending on how you count the Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby trilogy) this summer and fall. But the lack of roles for women older than Jennifer Lawrence — and darker than Jennifer Lawrence — has led the 49-year-old actress to television, where she’ll star as a Machiavellian law professor in ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder (debuting September 25).

Davis is the most recent example of the now-familiar journey from the big screen to the small that many aging actresses have taken to find roles that continue to interest them. She’s in great company; among her fellow travelers are Glenn Close (FX’s Damages), Laura Linney (Showtime’s The Big C), and Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates (FX’s American Horror Story).

But it’s important to note that, despite these conspicuous examples and the conventional wisdom, TV isn’t actually that much kinder to mature actresses than film is. To be sure, there are more opportunities for women overall. A study released last week revealed that 42 percent of all speaking characters on primetime programming in 2013-14 were female, compared to just 30 percent of all speaking characters in film last year. Because television has smaller budgets and viewership pressures — and perhaps because women are more loyal to the small screen than men are — TV also offers a greater number of opportunities for actresses who, like Davis, covet “the flashy roles.”

But as our number-crunching shows, the median age of female protagonists on both film and television is exactly the same: 33. While the Golden Age of Television was heralded by a celebration of the former boob tube’s new levels of artistry, including its auteurship opportunities and its unforeseen leaps in inclusive representation, the fact remains that the small screen has imposed its own age-related glass ceilings — and thus limited itself in the kinds of stories it can tell, and about which characters, especially women.

Here’s how we came by these necessary myth-busters about the relative progressiveness of TV: We took the 100 top-grossing films of 2013 and the 100 top-rated television series (minus Netflix, which doesn’t release its streaming numbers) of the 2013-14 season according to Nielsen. The list of the hundred most-watched series was compiled after removing competition shows and news programs like The Voice, Survivor, and 60 Minutes, which are inherently non-gendered, as well as football games.

When available, the ages of each female character were logged. TV characters were pegged at their ages during the 2013-14 season, so that, for example, Mindy Kaling’s chirpy doctor, who was 31 during The Mindy Project‘s inaugural season in 2012-13, is listed as 32 for this data set. In cases where the characters’ ages were unavailable, they were assigned the actress’s age minus one year (so that the data reflects the numbers for 2013).

Looking at the numbers, the first thing to note is that television is kinder to women than film is, simply because there are more leading roles for women. Of the 100 most popular TV shows, nearly a third (30 out of 100) boasted a clear female protagonist. That’s a significant distance away from parity, but it looks downright radical compared to the paltry 18 films out of the top 100 featuring a girl or a woman in the main role.

There’s also something to the stereotype that film is always chasing after youth and celebrity, while TV is content to be your dowdy best friend. Of the 18 films with a female protagonist, more than a third were about girls aged 16-21, thanks to the current YA craze (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen, Epic, Evil Dead, Carrie, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The Host). Most of these films are in the action-adventure mode, a fact that continues to disappointingly depict heroinedom as the realm of feisty or victimized girls, but not defiant, subversive women.

And the marginalization of women starts early. A decades-long glass ceiling is imposed on film actresses after their early twenties — or at least that was the case last year, when less than a third of roles were written about twenty- and thirtysomething characters. With the exception of Gravity, in which the then-49-year-old Sandra Bullock played the 32-year-old astronaut, studio filmmaking has failed actresses by providing starring roles in only genre and melodramatic dreck like Mama, Texas Chainsaw 3-D, Safe Haven, and Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.

The graying of the A-list — and the rise of silver-haired cinema — has kept the female crème de la crème of the film industry employed well into old age, however. Contrary to expectations, an entire third of the 18 female-led films (The Heat, Saving Mr. Banks, The Call, August: Osage County, Philomena, and Blue Jasmine) rested on over-40 shoulders. Who needs wrinkle cream when you’ve got a fantastic story and some good old-fashioned brand recognition? Tina Fey is right — “there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60” — but the industry has recently been producing great roles for Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and Jane Fonda.

It’s film’s long range of stories, especially its increasing forays into the AARP years, that keeps actresses under 25 and over 40 busy. For those other years, there’s television, which imagines the majority of its female protagonists (17 of 30) between precisely that gap, including Kerry Washington in Scandal, Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation, and Nicole Beharie in Sleepy Hollow, not to mention buzzier (but lower-rated) fare like Claire Danes in Homeland and Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex.

Another nine (of the 30 female-led shows) feature female protagonists over 40, many in procedurals like Law and Order: SVU (featuring Mariska Hargitay) and The Good Wife (starring Julianna Margulies). For whatever reason, visions of female competence are primarily, but reliably, available on the small screen. It’s the kind of phenomenon that makes you wanna buy as large a flat-screen as you can afford. It’s necessary to note, though, that no female protagonist exceeds 50. Aside from Golden Girls reruns, women of a certain age simply disappear. But that’s not strictly a female phenomenon.

So television is much kinder to actresses in their thirties and forties, but only because the film industry evidently loses interest in female characters after YA age. Neither of which does much to allay fears of female expendability once they’re no longer (conventionally) attractive to men. With the increasing niche-ification of both TV and film, though, actresses should fear not. The Betty White resurgence has found a home in TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, geriatric care gets spun into cringe-comedy gold in HBO’s Getting On, and the promising Lily Tomlin-Jane Fonda team-up is under way at Netflix.

The gray-volution can’t be far behind.

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3D Printing Doc Print the Legend Shows That Yes, You Will Be Able to Print a Gun

In 2010, The Social Network fictionalized the dramatic building-up and falling-out around Facebook’s founding. Four years later, the documentary Print the Legend, a Netflix original, needs no fictional filter. The filmmakers assume, rightly for the most part, that viewers will be invested in the origin story and power struggles at the start-up MakerBot, one of the first companies to make and sell 3-D printers to the public.

The doc plods at first, too enthralled by the successful start-up’s underdog narrative. Three smart, mildly handsome, and goofy young white men pursue a passion, and it works. Sharply edited and brightly lit, the film is all air and glass and synergy, too aesthetically close to the tech culture it’s depicting for necessary critical distance. Fortunately, that distance begins to emerge from within as ideological differences create rifts among the men of MakerBot. CEO Bre Pettis believes that continuing to make their hardware open-source is against the company’s financial interests, while Zach Hoeken Smith, a founder of MakerBot, is committed to open-sourcing, and leaves because of it.

Pettis, though reluctant to miss out on a hacker’s haphazard glamour in order to act as his company’s head, turns out to be a talented capitalist, but loses friends and support from the tech community. One MakerBot user designs and prints a working gun. Innovation is inextricable from violence. Is it worth killing friendships over? It’s worth noting that Pettis is the only one of MakerBot’s founding members with a page at Wikipedia, speaking of open-source enterprises.

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SAY MY NAME

If you say “Beetlejuice” three times, the 1988 comedy appears at the top of your Netflix queue. But why do that when you can see it under the stars at Brooklyn Bridge Park as part of the Syfy Movies with a View series? Spread out a blanket and bring a picnic dinner, and watch as surly spook Michael Keaton terrorizes the unwary using the time-honored haunting technique of the Harry Belafonte lipsynch. Director Tim Burton has OD’d on CGI in recent years, so it’s great to step back and watch his imagination at play with Claymation and physical FX.

Thu., July 31, 6 p.m., 2014

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The Grand Seduction Is a Breezily Told Comedy

Slightly charming and mostly simplistic, Don McKellar’s The Grand Seduction feels made for Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature — pleasant enough, but mostly forgotten with your next selection.

The breezily told comedy is set in Tickle Head, an industry-less harbor in Newfoundland whose denizens collect unemployment checks every week. When Mayor Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) learns that a chemical manufacturer considering building a plant in town requires a local doctor, which Tickle Head doesn’t have, he’s forced to enlist the town in an elaborate ruse: They will “seduce” temporary resident Dr. Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) to stay by radically reshaping Tickle Head’s culture to dovetail with his personal interests. The goofy conceit could prove winning with strong execution, and occasionally does (Lewis’s landline is tapped, and in the film’s best scene, two elderly women wind up eavesdropping on some phone sex).

But too often the storytelling feels undercooked. For example, Lewis loves cricket, so the townsfolk, who know nothing about it, pretend to play as he arrives. Lewis drops by the game, and the players have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing.

It could be the setup for a hilarious yet anxiety-inducing scene, but instead McKellar just has the players pretend the game is over. The same can be said of the handling of the obligatory scene in which the truth is revealed.

Still, the endearing nature of the characters, especially Gleeson’s Murray, provides some pleasure.

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There’s More to Streaming Than Netflix

As of this writing, the Netflix Instant catalog boasts more than 10,000 titles available for online streaming — a number that, as per the official Netflix rhetoric, seems colossal. But the landscape of this digital paradise may not be quite so idyllic. As classic film enthusiast Jaime Christley reminds us, “If you’re one of those crackpots who needs ready access to the wide, wonderful world of movies made before Star Wars, color television, or even pictures that talk, Netflix isn’t much to look at.”

Consider how the numbers break down. Unsurprisingly, a little over a third of Netflix’s streaming titles are seasons of television. Even less surprisingly, more than 5,500 of the remaining 6,706 movies were made over the last 20 years. The site currently offers only 301 films made before 1959 — 73 from the ’40s, 34 from the ’30s, a handful of silent features, a few early shorts and serials. Online streaming may be the future of cinema. But what about cinema history?

This emphasis on contemporary media is no doubt a reflection of market demand; conventional wisdom suggests that the latest hits encourage new subscriptions, so it hardly seems fair to hold them accountable for failing a niche audience to whom they’re not especially inclined to cater. The cinephile demographic is therefore resigned to seek out streaming content elsewhere. Fortunately, alternatives have emerged: Independent third-party startups like MUBI, Fandor, Warner Archive Instant, and Hulu Plus provide access to libraries of classic, foreign, and indie films in exchange for a modest monthly fee, while major pay-per-view services like iTunes and Amazon continue to position themselves as marginally more inclusive than their principal competitor. Here are a couple recommendations from one of our favorites.

In spring 2009, Warner Home Video launched the Warner Archive Collection, a “manufacture-on-demand” service that would release films otherwise unavailable on home video on made-to-order DVD-Rs. Previously, the Warner back catalog, which included titles originally owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and RKO Pictures in addition to its own substantial holdings, featured far more films than the studio could ever hope to release on DVD. The economics of an ordinary home video release make each run a matter of mass production and distribution: Only films whose demand numbered in the thousands would ever justify the expense of a single pressing, and the bulk of their titles from the ’30s and ’40s simply didn’t qualify. The Warner Archive Collection would obviate this problem by reducing the minimum runs to zero. A given film wouldn’t be pressed until it was purchased, which meant that Warner could make its most obscure properties available for public sale without any of the attendant risk.

It came as no surprise when, in April 2013, Warner Home Video announced its plans to expand the Archive Collection to the web, making many hundreds of its catalog titles available for online streaming; for a studio apparently eager to make classic films accessible at low expense, digitization seemed inevitable. At $9.99 per month, and with a catalog limited for now to a mere 400 titles, Warner Archive Instant may not seem like a bargain when compared to the more copiously populated Netflix Instant. The difference is that while Netflix remains fixated on the zeitgeist, Warner Archive Instant prefers instead to roam a less lucrative past, wandering long-forgotten vaults and gladly seizing whatever oddities it finds. Whatever your degree of familiarity with Hollywood history, the Warner Archive Instant is bound to yield something new.

Among the highlights are the nearly two dozen pre-code comedies and dramas steeped in provocative allure. I’m particularly fond of two: Jewel Robbery and Lawyer Man, from 1932 and 1933 respectively, both directed by William Dieterle and both starring the inimitable William Powell. Though both are memorably animated by the vigor of their charming lead, the films in fact represent two sides of the same proverbial coin — one righteous and sincere, the other immoral and irreverent. That they should have been produced by the same actor-director team, only one year apart, makes them even more interesting considered as a pair than apart. The first (and better) of the two, Jewel Robbery, finds Powell starring as a genteel thief whose impeccable style and manner make him no less capable contending with the fairer sex than with the high-priced diamonds he deftly steals from them. The role asks that Powell be attractive, suave, and puckishly droll, and as he is the very embodiment of these qualities, his performance feels as well-tailored as his luxury suits.

Powell, in other words, is a thief so charming you might not mind being his victim — and in fact this notion comes to form the inciting event. The ever-glamorous Kay Francis, with whom Powell had already been paired by ’32 a half-dozen times (to great success), here plays Teri, a baroness fed up with her husband and yearning to be charmed by a rogue. Naturally, when Powell comes along, cleaning out the jewelry shop where Teri has been gifted a diamond ring, she readily submits to his spell, flaunting her intentions and, with a flourish of impassioned struggle, all but consummating the budding affair right there on the boutique floor.

As simple comedy, all of this is delightful; every tête-à-tête feels electric. But what’s striking today is the candor. It’s perhaps too easy to celebrate pre-code films as subversive for simply intimating violence or sex, but Jewel Robbery justifies the attention: The sexual chemistry between Powell and Francis makes it seem only natural that, mere moments after meeting, they should hop into bed together — what’s surprising is that they quite literally do. The film bristles with the sorts of wrongdoings that, just two years later, would be banned under the Hays code: Crime is made out to be a joke, cops are made out to be fools, infidelity and premarital sex are openly embraced, marijuana is widely (and quite hilariously) consumed.

And yet, for all its conspicuous transgressions, Jewel Robbery hardly feels weighed down by immorality — the film is much too buoyant to sink under sin. The high spirits prove seductive, even infectious; the usual pat bit of moralizing at the end of the affair would have doubtless seemed disingenuous. More honest, I think, and more satisfying, for this affable criminal fantasy to carry on unimpeded. During the Depression, this sort of fun was dreamed up to invigorate America, a reverie to dispel sorrow. Today, its potency persists undiminished: The film delights as more than mere escapism.

It’s tempting to think of Lawyer Man, in which Powell plays an unwaveringly moral attorney on a mission to combat corruption, as a sort of well-meaning corrective to the misdeeds promoted by Jewel Robbery, but in truth it seems unlikely. William Dieterle, a prolific director even by the standards of the period, directed 11 feature films between 1932 and 1933, so it’s difficult to imagine the significance of any one looming over his conscience for long enough to do anything about it. (Powell starred in a further five films over the same two-year stretch.)

In any case, Lawyer Man presents a useful contrast. Powell’s unbridled charisma has been marshaled in aid of the public good, which he serves by flamboyantly thwarting the conspiracies of politicians, businessmen, and other trusted members of public office — all to the exaggerated chagrin of his superiors, who prefer the complacency of the blind eye. Whether he is grandly breaking the law or grandly upholding it, what becomes clear is that it’s the grandiosity that matters most to viewers: The thing about Powell is that he proves a joy to watch whatever side of the moral line he happens to be on at the time.

Its subject naturally requires that Lawyer Man adopt a more overtly dramatic approach than Jewel Robbery, but that distinction ultimately seems rather negligible — Powell and Dieterle can’t seem to help themselves from indulging in the same jocose sophistication either way. Part of the appeal of their union in these cases is how offhand the efforts feel. Whether a result of their speed or prolificacy, both Lawyer Man and Jewel Robbery come off as “minor” films in the very best sense. Powell, of course, would go on to achieve stratospheric success only a few years later with the double-punch of The Thin Man in 1934 and My Man Godfrey in 1936, the two performances for which he remains best remembered. The reputation of Jewel Robbery likewise suffers in comparison to Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, released the same year, which features both a similar premise and a co-star in Kay Francis. Jewel Robbery is not quite up to the standard set by top-tier Lubitsch (though what is?) and Powell, good in everything, is better in his best-known films.

But that’s part of what I like so much about Warner Archive Instant: It presents minor alternatives no less enjoyable themselves for being lesser than canonical greats. One thing I fear we’re losing in the rush to digitize is the abundance of good films that coexist alongside the truly great. These are the films whose legacies we need to fight hardest to preserve.

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SLAVE TO TV

By now we’ve come to terms with the fact that habitual Netflix binges will render our bodies soft, weak, and useless. But if we start tearing open our own abdomens, extracting handguns, and setting off on a gory rampage, we promise to stop and read a book or something. In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1984), poor James Woods learns his lesson too late. In the quintessentially ’80s cult classic, his character becomes obsessed with finding the origin of a violent, hardcore porny underground TV program, all the while experiencing dire hallucinations. Debbie Harry makes her film debut as his sadomasochistic femme fatale. It screens tonight as part of the Nitehawk Nasties series.

Sat., Jan. 4, 12:10 a.m.; Sun., Jan. 5, 12:10 a.m., 2014

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Five of the Year’s Best Films — That You Can Stream on Netflix Right Now

For professional film critics, you’ll notice, the year in film tends to conclude prematurely. Those “Best Of” lists you see popping up everywhere around now have often been tallied, decided, and finalized by mid-November — and in the web’s ever-harried race for clicks and pageviews, that date seems to be receding further all the time. (The Voice‘s own film poll closed on December 11.) Among the more regrettable consequences of this is an illusion of gatekeeping. The impulse to declare and broadcast an opinion of a film as far in advance of its release as possible has, I suspect, created a sense that the only films of the year worth talking about are those available exclusively to critics. (I admit and apologize for my own indulgence in this practice.)

See also: Eight Great Shows You Haven’t Binge-Watched on Netflix Yet

It’s doubtless frustrating to open countless Best Film lists to find an assortment of foreign curiosities and indies with only meager distribution — films bestowed only a nominal one-week theatrical run on the coasts before disappearing into obscurity. But one of the pleasant things about moviegoing in 2013 is that many of these titles, however minuscule their budgets, make their way to video-on-demand services, often in time for year-end catch up.

With that in mind, here are five of the year’s most accomplished and highly regarded movies, each of which is available to stream, for no extra charge, on Netflix Instant.

1. Room 237 (Rodney Ascher)
Not so much a documentary about The Shining as a portrait of the quiet madness its legacy has inspired and enshrined, Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 quickly proves no less intriguing than the film its subjects regard with such reverence. It may be that the many conspiracy theories declaimed by Ascher’s eccentric interviewees begin to seem almost infectious — it’s as if the delusions of the film’s obsessives could be caught like a disease. Be advised: Kubrick can never be seen the same way again.

2. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)
One of Mexico’s premiere auteurs, the great Carlos Reygadas, returned this year with perhaps his most challenging feature film to date, the gorgeous, terrifying, and frequently inscrutable Post Tenebras Lux. But despite its occasional its forays into apparent abstraction — a sanguine Satan with a briefcase and a glowing yard-long member, two arbitrary cuts to a schoolyard rugby match, and so on — the film never seeks to punish. Whatever effort may be required by Reygadas is duly returned.

3. Somebody Up There Likes Me (Bob Byington)
Somebody Up There Likes Me is a comedy of the sort popularized by The Office and its legion of carbon-copy primetime successors — founded on the pain of embarrassment and discomfort, its jokes largely revolve around its hero’s various poses of social awkwardness. But Bob Byington’s interests run deeper: His film is as invested in the pathos of the story as it is the natural humor, which may be why its gags so often seem to touch a nerve.

4. This Is Martin Bonner (Chad Hartigan)
Be wary of any Sundance darling billed as “gentle” or “unassuming” — these are well known critical euphemisms for “cloying” and “interminable,” common qualities among Park City alumni. But Chad Hartigan’s This is Martin Bonner, an understated drama about an aging Christian and the ex-convict he gradually befriends, is gentle and unassuming in the best possible sense: sophisticated rather than tepid, moving rather than bland.

5. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
It’s been nearly a decade since Shane Carruth emerged, seemingly from nowhere, to ensnare less elastic minds with his left-brain time-travel opus, Primer, in 2004, and the question of how the film world’s only math-whiz auteur might one-up himself with his sophomore feature has finally been answered — though not quite as anybody expected. While no less complex than its predecessor, Upstream Color proved considerably warmer, revealing a side of its already exhaustively multitalented writer-director-editor-composer-star that few had anticipated: He’s as interested in feeling as thought.

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Eight Great Shows You Haven’t Binge-Watched on Netflix Yet

Luther (Netflix Link)

Golden Globe winner and impossible-handsomeness standard-bearer Idris Elba is Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, a brilliant investigator with a complete inability to detach from the darkness of his work. In the pilot, he investigates chilling psychopath Alice Morgan, played by Ruth Wilson — he knows, but cannot prove, that the young woman has viciously murdered her parents. Over the course of the series, she becomes both Moriarity and muse, fascinated by Luther’s brilliance, inserting herself into his personal life and assisting with his police work. The Luther program is madness, often preposterous in its grimness and kind of torturous to watch; the first season packs a good 20 episodes’ worth of completely deranged melodrama into only six. (Chris Packham)

Green Wing (Netflix Link)

It’s hard to talk about Green Wing without mentioning Scrubs. Both are comedies set in hospitals that occasionally take surreal and ludicrous turns. The main difference between the two, however, is that Green Wing is funny. Very funny. While Scrubs makes groaningly desperate attempts toward M*A*S*H-ian sincerity and heart, the staff members at Green Wing‘s East Hampton Hospital Trust are too self-involved and morally bankrupt for this to be a problem. Green Wing only ran for two seasons — as good British comedies are wont to do — so you’ll be able to watch the entire series during a single sick day. Just be glad they’re not your doctors. (Nick Greene)

Burn Notice

Shot on a deceptively miniscule budget, the USA Network’s Burn Notice is a smart, fast spy thriller that plays like an updated Rockford Files. Jeffrey Donovan is Michael Westen, a CIA agent abandoned and disavowed by the agency in the pilot episode, dumped in his hometown of Miami, and warned not to leave the city. He sets up shop as a spy-for-hire, assisted by beer-swilling colleague Bruce Campbell, his chain-smoking mom, and his ex-IRA ex-girlfriend, usually deploying espionage tactics in support of Miami’s helpless and downtrodden. The show eschews improbable spy gadgetry and digital effects in favor of realistic intelligence techniques explained with understated irony by Donovan in voiceover. (Chris Packham)

Alias

Long before he savored/suffered the joy/misery of helming every important science-fantasy franchise/getting hit with every dumb lens-flare joke the Internet could cough up, J.J. Abrams crafted this tense, twisting, candy-coated double-agent adventure/romance, a show so thick with smart spies’ betrayals and counter-betrayals that it feels, in its first season-and-a-half, like its own premise might explode at any moment. In fact, that premise does explode, and a series that starts out inspired settles — midway through that second season — into something less urgent but still plenty agreeable. But the first 35 eps are best: goofy doubles, oh-hell-no cliffhangers, too-good-for-TV fights, DaVinci Code silliness about a magic Renaissance inventor, killer performances from Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, Lena Olin, and apple-pie-sweet ass-kicker Jennifer Garner, who is Abrams’ Felicity times ScarJo’s Black Widow. Bonus: A surprisingly likable — and under-used — Bradley Cooper. (Alan Scherstuhl)

Running Wilde

Fans awaiting the return of the Cheney-era Arrested Development in May will mostly adore Mitch Hurwitz’s Running Wilde, a short-lived Fox series starring Will Arnett and David Cross. Arnett is Steven Wilde, a self-centered billionaire who attempts to change and redeem himself to impress his high-school sweetheart Emmy (Keri Russell). Besides the cast, it shares other traits with its predecessor, including voiceover narration and densely scripted episodes, but it also introduces Peter Serofinowicz as Steven’s stentorian best friend, Fa’ad. It’s hard to avoid swearing and superlatives when discussing how Serofinowicz is fucking comedy goddamn dynamite, so suffice to say that over the course of 13 episodes, he delivers one of the most brilliantly sustained comic performances in the last decade of U.S. television. (Chris Packham)

Sherlock (Netflix Link)

Can we blame The Hobbit for there being only 12 hours so far of Steven Moffat’s superb, suspenseful Conan Doyle makeover? With his Watson (Martin Freeman) on a Middle Earth slog, and his Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) voicing Peter Jackson’s dragon, the work these actors will be best remembered for has languished on hold. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is an antsy, plugged-in, Byronic nightmare, given to impossible rudeness and even more impossible feats of deduction. (These are depicted with such kinetic camera work that the BBC probably has to send a bloke round to the palace to be sure the Queen doesn’t get seasick.) Watson is a shell-shocked vet of the Middle Eastern wars, an exasperated fellow who, like Sherlock, only comes fully to life when chasing down a mystery. Elements of the original stories are masterfully remixed, and episode six — the last — builds to something we can’t quite call a cliffhanger, because a cliffhangers involve still somehow hanging. Lay down some tarp for when your mind gets blown. (Alan Scherstuhl)

Dollhouse

From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Serenity, the film that concluded the unfairly abbreviated Firefly series, Joss Whedon’s superheroic ability to bring stories home with shattering finales qualifies him as an Avenger. Dollhouse, his 2009 cyberpunk psycho-thriller, was similarly curtailed after two seasons, but with enough advance warning for Whedon to craft a surprising — and unexpectedly huge — ending. An evil corporation operates a global network of “Dollhouses,” bases from which technicians program the bodies of “actives” with new personalities and memories for the bidding of wealthy clients. So, slaves, basically. And yes, Whedon explores all the implications therein, from his own humane and feminist perspective. Eliza Dushku is Echo, an active slowly recovering her past memories between missions. In true Whedon form, the series arcs from twisty action-espionage to terrifying global apocalypse, with sharp characterizations and occasional laffs. (Chris Packham)

The Sarah Silverman Program

Sarah Silverman’s persona exerts such gravity that the excellent writers and ensemble cast in her orbit can go unnoticed. Did you know that The Sarah Silverman Program was co-created with Community‘s Dan Harmon? Or that Comedy Central fired him from the show way before firing Dan Harmon from awesomely funny shows was cool? Way less mainstream than Community, TSSP featured transgressive storylines and a willingness to shock — charmingly, sweetly — in an era when the network was more interested in racist puppetry than smashing icons. Like Community, the show is informed by a heightened and absurd reality, as much Harmon’s influence as Silverman’s. The show surrounded its star with big names from the last decade of alternative comedy, including Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn, Steve Agee, Tig Notaro and many others. (Chris Packham)