Highlights from 150 DVD Rentals (and Counting)—Now With Lists!

I just rented my 150th DVD from Netflix. It took me about eighteen months to rent that many, so I’m getting my money’s worth.

Renting DVDs online has changed my home movie watching experience quite a lot. Because the online stores have huge libraries, I’ve seen a lot of old, obscure, and foreign films that I can never find at local video stores. And because renting movies feels free (as in costless), I’ve also seen a lot of mainstream movies for which I never would have paid a rental fee plus (inevitable) late fee.

Another really great aspect of renting movies online is that when I’m reading a review and a certain film is mentioned I can just open a new browser window and put it in my queue. Sometimes I forget how a DVD got into my queue. A movie will show up at home and my wife will ask me what it is, what it’s about, or who’s in it and all I can do is read her the little description on the DVD sleeve because I have no clue.

Among the 150 DVDs I have discovered several very good films and a few great ones. Here are some great movies I wouldn’t have seen if I wasn’t renting online:

Scenes From a Marriage (1973) and other Ingmar Bergman films
Usually I don’t like too much talking in my movies. But Bergman’s characters are so smart and insightful that I love listening to them. Scenes From a Marriage is pretty much just five hours of conversations between two people. Johan and Marianne have a seemingly happy marriage until, out of the blue, Johan reveals that he’s having an affair and wants a divorce. We witness various conversations between Johan and Marianne over several years as they go from married couple to separated to finally divorced to post-divorce. Their conversations about their marriage, sex, personal successes and failures, love for one another, their contempt for one another, and their individual pursuits of happiness are captivating and true. And the camera work, with the occasional quick-zoom close up, punctuates the conversations and heightens the drama. This is a made-for-TV miniseries that I rank alongside Kieslowski’s The Decalogue and South Park (joking (sort of)) as one of the great achievements in TV.

Some other Bergman films that I have loved: The Seventh Seal, Cries and Whispers, Winter Light, Wild Strawberries. The thing about these movies is that I usually don’t enjoy watching them as much as some other films with more action, but these ones stay with me for days after I watch them. So the experience of watching a Bergman film is more than just the couple of hours of diversion while you’re watching; it involves days or weeks of contemplating and feeling.

To Be and To Have (Étre et Avoir) (2002)
This is a simple little documentary that shows us one school year in a tiny, one-room schoolhouse in the French countryside. It’s also a profile of the teacher. He has a dozen or so students ranging in age from four to nine or ten. The drama here is relatively mundane: will the four-year-old learn how to be nice? Will the older student open up and learn to communicate before middle school? So there’s not much intrigue here, but observing this tender, attentive man helping kids through this formative time of their lives is really moving. There is one scene near the end that is one of the most subtly powerful of all the scenes in the 150 movies I’ve rented. On the last day of school as the children prepare to leave for the summer, or in the case of some, for good, they each give the teacher a hug and a kiss and thank him. As the children are leaving the camera turns to the teacher and we see him well up with emotion. The love and concern that he shows for these kids is inspiring. Makes me want to start paying attention to my own kids.

Buster Keaton’s silent films
Buster Keaton’s silent films are tons of fun. I don’t have much else to add. The sight-gags, the set pieces, the Keaton persona, and especially the stunts and physical comedy add up to make a surprisingly fun viewing experience. The thing about the stunts is that what you’re seeing, Keaton is doing. There’s no clever editing or high-tech trickery. It’s just a guy doing some crazy stuff. He’s kind of the proto-Jackie Chan but without fighting.

I haven’t seen a lot of Charlie Chaplain, but what I have seen hasn’t been nearly as fun as Keaton’s work. So don’t think you’ve seen all the silent comedy/action there is to see if you’ve seen Chaplain.

Some fun Keaton films (each DVD has the feature and two or three other, shorter films): The General, The Navigator, Steamboat Bill, Jr..

Here are some of the 150 DVD’s I’ve rated the highest:
Touch of Evil (1958)—Orson Welles, Charlton Heston as a Mexican
Sanjuro (1962)—Kurosawa’s most fun
Malcolm X (1992)—Netflix thought I was black after I rated this highly.
The Apartment (1960)—Love Shirley MacLaine
Gandhi (1982)—Didn’t feel like 190 min.
The Office: Series 1 (2001)—Funniest TV show ever.
The Conversation (1974)—The 70’s were a good decade for Mr. Coppola.

Some other highlights that I will add to my collection if I ever get one:
The Road Home (2001)
Diabolique (1955)
Metropolitan (1990)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Throne of Blood (1957)
A Christmas Carol (1984)
The Battle of Algiers (1965)
A Little Princess (1995)
Tootsie (1982)
3 Women (1977)
The King of Comedy (1983)
The Age of Innocence (1993)
The Apostle (1997)
Rashomon (1950)

Some stinkers:
Ray (2004)
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)
Radiohead: Meeting People is Easy (1999)
Possession (2002)
The Terminal (2004)


39 thoughts on “Highlights from 150 DVD Rentals (and Counting)—Now With Lists!

  1. I thought Etre et Avoir was not worth the time, and I speak French! It’s like a documentary with no topic, just a rolling camera with randomly selected scens on display.

  2. If you are a fan of Buster Keaton, give Jackie Chan a try, particularly Rumble in the Bronx. Chan is a huge Keaton fan, having watched his stuff growing up.

    I don’t normally like “fighting movies” but Chan is transcendant sometimes.

  3. Ben S., I can definitely see why you would say that. Some documentaries fascinate me just because they show people being people. I suppose I would say that the topic of To Be and To Have is love. It captivated and moved me in very subtle ways.

    Jennifer, I like Keaton and Chan for pretty similar reasons.

  4. Rumble in the Bronx is an odd movie to recommend for Jackie Chan. I enjoyed it, but it’s certainly not one of his best.

    On the other hand, it’s fun to see the Canadian Rockies in the background of those external shot of “The Bronx.”

  5. Have you seen Fanny and Alexander yet Tom? I saw The Seventh Seal again yesterday, and while it was equally moving a second time, it illuminated the simple truth that Fanny and Alexander was a more profound movie. I think Wild Strawberries was my 2nd favorite Bergman, and Seventh Seal my third.

    Thank you Netflix for The Triplets of Belleville.

  6. I haven’t seen Fanny and Alexander yet. I’ve taken a little Bergman break. I’ll get back at it soon.

    I’ve been wanting to give Triplets of Belleville another look. When I saw it I was really tired, so I think I was a bit impatient with all the quietness. But it left an impression.

  7. It’s funny, Netflix is one of the things that got me not watching movies anymore. I’d put something in the queue, but by the time it came, I wouldn’t feel like watching it right then, and my husband would send it back so someone else’s movie would be sent (all five of us were renting movies with it). Then our account expired and we never renewed it.

    You should check out a movie called The Swimmer, though.

  8. Susan, I have a similar problem. As much as I like Netflix, I end up ordering movies that I don’t really want to see that badly and they sit on my shelf for weeks, keeping the stuff I do want to see from making it to the top of my queue. The Aviator has been sitting by my DVD player for over a month, just begging me to send it back.

  9. Cries and Whispers — curious why you “loved” it. Not exactly the word I’d use.

    The General is my favorite silent film. Must see.

    I’m a big fan brick-and-mortar stores. There’s a nice independent store within walking distance that has an amazing selection (maybe only 3 movies I’ve wanted that they didn’t have). I’ve been there so much that half the checkers don’t ask for my card anymore. Can’t get that kind of service online.

  10. There are now lists at the end of the post. I knew you all wanted more.

    Pris, Cries and Whispers put me in a trance. I was completely absorbed in the experience, feeling everything so keenly, even if my brain wasn’t making a ton of sense of it.

    I’m sure I could find a decent video store around town, but Netflix is fulfilling my needs pretty well. They’ve only let me down once, and I’m not even sure the movie is out on DVD in the states (a Pakistani lab mate told me that I needed to see Jinnah to get the other side of the Gandhi story. I guess I’ll have to flounder in ignorance until Netflix gets their act together.). The one problem with it is I can’t just get a movie on a whim.

    SuperG, thanks. I think the 150th is the plutonium anniversary, right? I’ll have to figure something out.

    Susan, The Swimmer is now in my queue. It better not suck.

  11. Problems, no. I watched it with a friend who has a very similar taste in film. It was recommended to him by a guy he knew who taught film for a college–the guy claiming that it was his favorite movie. It was good, I can recognize that much, but it wasn’t enjoyable. One of the hardest movies I’ve ever seen. The one scene that sticks in my mind inolves broken glass, or a mirror…

    On more cheery topics, have you had any problems with Netflix? There’s some evidence that heavy users of the system (which is what I would be if I used it) have their movies delayed substantially after a few months of service.

  12. I know the scene, and I thought it was a misstep. That was the only time in the movie when I felt like I was on the outside looking in. I wondered why Bergman did that, instead of why the character did that.

    The delays vary. Often it seems random, but it does seem like it starts to give me more delays after of few weeks of heavy use. Right now I’m not using it as heavily and it’s receiving and shipping movies pretty fast (I can receive a movie back on the third day after I send one away).

    The one study that I saw focused on movies that were in high demand and it was pretty clear that heavy users got lower priority over new and less frequent users for high-demand titles. It didn’t look into shipping and processing delays for heavy users generally.

    Basically, with the three DVD at a time plan, if you watch every DVD the day you get it and send it back the next day, you might have two or three days during the week where you’re movieless. But if you were on a five DVD at a time plan (I think that’s an option), you might be able to watch a DVD every day.

  13. Since I hate the fact that I’m perceived as a big snob around here, I’ll say this as nicely as I can: I haven’t used Netflicks, because I own DVDs instead. I have all the Bergman films mentioned, most of which I saw in the theater long ago.

    I like Scenes from a Marriage very much, but I particularly like having it in its original version, a series made for television.

    Fanny and Alexander is a beautiful movie, too (meaning, beautifully photographed).

  14. I haven’t seen the theatrical version of Scenes From a Marriage. I’ve been curious to see it, just to see how he condensed it. I definitely think it’s worth it to see the TV version.

  15. Ooh, thanks for the reminder. Aviator is one of those films that needs to be added to our Netflix queue.

    Diane and I like Netflix … except that she uses it to sign up for all the mediocre cheesy chick flicks that I normally escape seeing. Even she wouldn’t go to a theater to see these films. But she says this is why we got Netflix. So now we end up seeing them, sooner or later.

    We sort of trade off. I think right now we’re at a 2:1 ratio that is in her favor. Oh well. At least we don’t have to walk down to Blockbuster.

  16. I’m a pretty big fan of animation in general and I like bicycle racing. Yet I could not get into Triplets of Belleville. Is something wrong with me?


    You probably are netflix. It is your secret identity or something. I keep meaning to set up a network in my family in which we share movies. Then I think it would be easier to just rip them all to a 300 GB hard drive and then ship that from family to family…

  17. It’s true, I am my own Netflix! I own about 2,200 DVDs. Dan B., and John Fowles, Logan, Kaimi, anybody that’s been to my place can testify. I’ve lent DVDs to Steve and Sumer, so, I guess I could lend them to others.

    I’ve also got about 500 DVD-Rs with video copied from cable television, or actual bootleg concert footage of stage shows (like Wicked).

  18. Cool D., does your bootleg of Wicked have the original cast? That sounds iike a party at D.’s waiting to happen!

  19. Danithew– Maude and I have a similar 2:1 NetFlix ratio, but we’ve gone so far as to codify it. You can set up a sub-account within your existing one. I have my own queue within her account, so she gets her top two movies sent automatically and I get my top movie.

    It keeps us from getting three Maude-movies at once. I recommend it.

  20. I am so excited to see The Battle of Algiers on your list. I’ve always really liked that movie, but it’s so obscure – most people would never give it a mention!

    And if you liked Touch of Evil, you might also like other Film Noir from that era. Try Detour, Double Indemnity, White Heat, Angel Face, and Scarlet Street. All fun!

    Since we’ve moved to SE Asia, I’ve discovered that in this part of the world they don’t rent movies (or have NetFlix), they just sell copies for about 3 bucks each. If we want to rent a film, we basically just have to buy it. This has amounted to us acquiring almost a couple hundred dvds in the 10 months we’ve lived here!! The trouble is, the selection usually runs from the latest action pic to the latest Chinese action pic. Right now I’d love to see some Bergman. (Although to be fair, I did pick up Amelie and 400 Blows, which are great.)

    But here’s the weirdest thing: I also picked up “Home Teachers.” Seeing this movie in a bootleg DVD shop on the streets of Kuala Lumpur really made me wonder!

  21. The Battle of Algiers is obscure, meems? Wow, I must be living in cinematic outer space!

    By the way, here’s today’s run-don’t-walk Netflix recommendation: the Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Too good to believe!

  22. Okay, RT, it’s not obscure but only because you’re in the hotbed of culture known as the East Bay.

    And speaking of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it was directed by this guy… um… I don’t know, but his WIFE is Agnes Varda and she made an outstanding movie about her husband (the director) called Jacques de Nantes, and also she made the incredible film called Vagabond. That’s a not-to-be-missed French treat. An(other) all time favorite.

  23. Wow — Battle of Algiers, Umbrellas of Cherbourg…..

    where’s the love for Les Regles du Jeu?

    And where are the Battleship Potemkin fans???

  24. Battle of Algiers, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Rules of the Game, and Battleship Potemkin are all movies I know and own…

  25. Yeah, me too — I just watched it yesterday, which is why its sequel sprang to mind when I tried to think of a movie you didn’t own.

  26. Re: The Battle of Algiers, it’s relatively obscure. It’s well-known enough that most semi film buffs know about it, but it’s obscure enough that I’m sure nobody in my family has seen or heard about it (except for my bro., who is my Netflix friend).

    Tyler, I saw Saraband. As my other Netflix friend, you should know this. Anyways, I thought it was good. Intriguing and thought-provoking. A bit creepy. Johan and Marianne are pretty true to character. Johan is still an a-hole, but an honest, aware a-hole.

    aRJ, if there’s something wrong with you for not getting into The Triplets of Belleville, then it’s the same thing that’s wrong with me and a lot of other people. I does seem like there’s something there, though, and I want to give it another look. I think it might be one of those movies that requires that you be in a certain frame of mind/on a certain wavelength. Sleepy was the wrong frame of mind, for sure.

  27. Triplets of Belleville was difficult. And this is from someone who can sit through Potemkin and Intolerance.

    But I’m tellin’ ya, you Francophiles,… Vagabond!

  28. I did the sub queue thing, too – but for television series – those multi disc behemoths take a lot of space – and I can adjust the number of discs back & forth between the queues.

    We just watched two documtaries worth a look:

    Paris is Burning- about the drag queen scene in New York City in the late eighties – the commentary track has some fascinating update info.

    Scratch – about dj & turntabalism, pretty current. Hip hop & Rap are not my genres of choice – but what these guys can do with a record & a needle is pretty damn impressive.

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