With thousands of films at hand, merely scrolling through Netflix’s homepage risks leaving many great films off the radar. But for those who know where to look, the streaming giant has plenty of must-watch indie releases that algorithm-based recommendations just can’t match — including plenty of titles from Eastern Europe. The Calvert Journal has picked our top selection of hidden gems for the start of 2021.
Love Sick offers an unusual take on the classic love triangle trope. Cristina and Alex fall in love while living in university halls, but their relationship is disturbed by Sandu: Cristina’s brother, with whom she has an incestuous relationship. Through Cristina and Alex’s relationship, the film candidly captures the confusion and fascination of young love, and explores the girls’ rejection of the societal sense of tradition. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Cecilia Stefanescu, although the clandestine relationship between Cristina and her brother wasn’t part of the original plot. Part teenage love story, part social commentary on a changing Romania, it initially made little more than a ripple on the international LGBTQ+ film scene in its release. Today, the film signifies a coming-of-age for Romanian cinema, and remains an entertaining watch.
Available in: Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Sweden
This gripping biopic depicts six days in the life of Russian writer Sergey Dovlatov in 1970s Leningrad, before he and his friend Joseph Brodsky left the Soviet Union to seek greater creative freedom in New York. Powerfully recreating the dramatic tension of the era, the film follows Dovlatov as he tries to share his work through the dissident underground. It is a poignant portrait of the writer’s life and the struggles that forced him into exile — only to eventually become one of Russia’s best loved authors after his death in 1990, and the fall of the Soviet Union. The film, which was a joint Russian, Polish, and Serbian production, also snatched a Silver Bear for costume design at the 2018 Berlinale.
Available in: Australia, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, UK, and US
My Happy Family premiered at the Berlinale in 2017, and it is well on its way to becoming a contemporary arthouse classic. It follows the story of Manana, a 50-year-old woman who, strangled by social pressure, wakes up one morning and decides to leave her family. But as she moves by herself into a flat in the outskirts, past secrets come to light in an unfortunate series of events that shred the traditional family structure to pieces.
The film, which received both a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and a special jury mention at the Seattle International Film Festival, is a heartfelt look at characters who struggle to find balance against the weight of tradition and societal expectations: a delicate battle for women in modern-day Georgia and beyond.
Available in: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, UK, and US
In 2020, Netflix acquired the rights for Romanian New Wave masterpiece The Death of Mr Lăzărescu. Set in communist-era Romania, Cristi Puiu’s 2005 darkly comic exposé of the health system follows the real-time odyssey of an ailing old man, Dante Lăzărescu, who is shipped from hospital to hospital after doctors continuingly refuse to treat him and pass moral judgement on his excessive drinking. After our anti-hero is flung through hell and back, he eventually succumbs to illness while waiting for an operation. A chronicle of a death foretold, Puiu is not only criticising a malfunctioning health system, but also making a satirical stab at the Romanian film industry and the timid allegorical cinema on which his generation were raised. Sixteen years after its release, with Romania’s healthcare system is ailing, the film remains both a stylistic masterpiece, and as a stark reminder of the human costs of societal failure.
Available in: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Israel, Itay, Japan, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, UK, and US
Digital disinformation, online manipulation, and real-life violence: social thriller The Hater is a film made for our times. Months after their 2019 impostor-priest drama Corpus Christi was nominated for the Oscars, director Jan Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz returned with a nightmarish, provocative look at online manipulation — and just how quickly it can translate into an offline dystopia. The film’s protagonist, Tomasz Giemza, is a failed law student who takes a job in a PR company. He uses his new position to create a troll farm that spreads fake news on politicians and celebrities. But Giemza quickly grows emotionally fragile and enters a spiral of hate focused on sabotaging a liberal politician running for mayor. The film’s release was allegedly delayed after the film’s events strayed too close to real life — when the mayor of Gdansk, Paweł Adamowicz, was stabbed on stage at a charity event in 2019. But it is the film’s spine-chilling plausibility that truly makes it a thrilling, disturbing watch.
Available in: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, UK, and US
Ruben Brandt, Collector is another crime thriller — except this time, it’s an animated romp from Slovenian-born, Hungarian director Milorad Kstrič. The film is the extraordinary story of an art collector and psychiatrist who — ironically — is haunted by his own (literal) demons. Four of the psychiatrist’s criminal patients eventually attempt to steal the famous artworks driving their therapist mad — but a detective is quickly on their tail to try and foil the heist. Don’t be tricked by the animated aspect of the film: Ruben Brandt, Collector is a deeply complex watch, plagued with almost excessive cinema and art references. The thieves’ feats unfold out of sequence as they travel to the world’s most famous art museums — Madrid’s El Prado, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and the Art Institute of Chicago — where the paintings themselves appear distorted, a reflection of the psychiatrist’s own nightmares.
Available in: France, UK, Greece, Hungary, India, Israel, Japan, South Africa, Sweden, and Turkey
When Costi decides to gather up his family — including his divorced, estranged father — for a surprise Christmas reunion, the stage is inadvertently set for a complex, character-driven drama among the snow-capped Romanian mountains. Physically, Marița can be considered a road movie, but it journeys far deeper into a maze of family ties. As Costi and his father drive across the countryside in an old Dacia, the pair are forced to confront issues they have rarely faced — masculinity, loyalty, the spectre of adultery — but also have the rare chance to simply enjoy each other’s company. Characterised by long, penchant takes and static scenes in the rugged Romanian landscape, Marița is emotionally challenging and visually captivating. Defined as “understated” by Netflix, the film was praised by critics for its simplicity and refreshing spontaneity.
Available in: Germany, Netherlands, Slovakia, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, and UK