The best thing about Netflix's library is the sheer range. However, it's easy to miss the true gems that get added to its mass of titles every month, especially when you're one click away from rewatching The Office again.
In August, Netflix added an Oscar-nominated film that revolutionized the way we talk about science fiction, and paved the way for future icons. You may have missed it, but you absolutely need to watch this one right now.
Being John Malkovich was a gamble on all fronts. Its director, Spike Jonze, had only previously helmed shorts, commercials, and music videos, and its writer, Charlie Kaufman, was fresh out of a sitcom writer's room. The concept for the 1999 film itself was a preposterous notion: an aspiring puppeteer discovers a portal that allows one inside the mind of actor John Malkovich for 15 minutes before being ejected along the New Jersey turnpike.
It sounds more like a Mad Libs than a movie premise, but between Kaufman's expert control of character and matter-of-fact exposition and Jonze's otherworldly direction, the result is a masterpiece that cemented its place in the conversation for what many call the best year of cinema. Craig (John Cusack) is existential but ambitious and combined with his animal collecting wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) and work crush Maxine (Catherine Keener), the story is rich and just confusing enough to keep your attention.
Spike Jonze went on to direct a bunch of famous movies and dabbled in writing himself, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Her. Conversely, Charlie Kaufman has gone on to start directing, and his latest film, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, premieres on Netflix on September 4th. That both men understood each other's craft means the presentation is seamless. It feels like this strange world is one we've always lived in.
Kaufman's work is always steeped in metaphor and imagery, and that's obvious in Being John Malkovich. Craig Schwartz seeks to become a famous puppeteer, and stumbles upon the most lifelike puppet possible, a living being. The movie explores how we as people treat our own bodies as puppets, and how changing the way the world views us can affect our way of thinking.
Some aspects of it are charming, like Craig's workplace on the 7 1/2th floor of an gloomy office building, or the paradox that occurs when John Malkovich himself enters the portal to his own head. But every scene and every offhand surreal comment adds to an unsettled tone that looms throughout.
There's a fabulous cast as well. Of course, John Malkovich appears as himself, but the main roles of this stellar script are handled with care by John Cusack, Catherine Keener, and Cameron Diaz. In a drab, corporate world, they shine even through schlubby hair and makeup.
This film is a must-watch for anyone who loves creepy films more than outright scary films, especially mere weeks before Kaufman's latest creation arrives on Netflix. It's easy to draw a line from Being John Malkovich to Get Out, which took the concept of controlling someone's mind and expanded on it; or The Shape of Water, which also took a magical-realist tone and created a love story out of it. It's a foundational work that only gains more meaning and influence as it ages.
Being John Malkovich is now streaming on Netflix.