Netflix Just Released One of the Best Movies of the Year

Did you know that one of the best movies of the year just premiered on Netflix? I hope so, but it wouldn’t surprise if you didn’t. Sometimes it looks like Netflix’s distribution strategy is designed to finally answer the age-old question about whether a tree falling in the woods makes a sound if no one is there to hear it.

Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to the people who actually make their movies. Describing his experience directing his 2022 animated movie Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood for Netflix, filmmaker Richard Linklater said he was proud of the finished product, but did feel like “one day [the movie] showed up on a platform with no fanfare. It’s always kind of sad when you realize even your friends don’t know your film is out.”

And he’s one of the directors who’s actually willing to work with Netflix. Others flat-out refuse. In 2017, Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan called out Netflix for its “mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation.” Google the phrase “Netflix is killing movie theaters” and you’ll get thousands of results.

READ MORE: What Happened to All the Movies in Theaters For Kids?

Roger Ebert liked to say that a movie “is not about what it is about, but about how it is about it.” The same is true of technologies; what ultimately matters most is how they are utilized. As a fan of seeing new work by great directors in any form or medium, I appreciate and acknowledge the fact that Netflix has spent the last few years providing major financing to artists like Martin Scorsese (The Irishman), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), David Fincher (The Killer), and Guillermo del Toro (Pinocchio). A lot of the films they made with Netflix’s money were too ambitious or eclectic for traditional studios. Then Netflix put those ambitious and eclectic projects into hundreds of millions of homes around the world.

But what if people don’t even realize those movies are available? Richard Linklater premiered his follow-up to Apollo 10 1/2, a dark comedy called Hit Man, at last summer’s Venice Film Festival. The movie got great reviews. One rave after another described it as a “crowd pleaser” that absolutely killed in a theatrical setting. In the end, Linklater sold the film … to Netflix. Last year, the movie’s sales agent promised Hit Man’s release would include a “theatrical component,” and true to his word the film began playing in select multiplexes in May before its Netflix premiere.

How it performed in theaters is anyone’s guess. Netflix doesn’t report box-office grosses; Hit Man’s Box Office Mojo page currently indicates only that the film has grossed $1.1 million worldwide. (It earned nearly three quarters of a million dollars in the Netherlands alone. The Dutch can’t get enough Richard Linklater!) A few glances at Hit Man’s Fandango page throughout the last week indicated to me that here in New York City I could have easily bought a seat to any screening at any theater showing the movie.

In this context, the title Hit Man feels tragically ironic — especially because Hit Man is one of the best movies Netflix has released in months, or maybe even years. Glen Powell stars as a psychology professor who moonlights as an undercover agent for the New Orleans Police Department. When the cops get wind of someone trying to hire a hit man, they call Powell’s Gary Johnson to come and impersonate said hit man, which he does with great skill — at least until the day a beautiful woman (Adria Arjona) trapped an abusive marriage tries to solicit his services.

Hit Man is funny, sexy, exciting, and exceedingly well-written. Powell and Arjona’s onscreen relationship keeps twisting and turning in delightfully unexpected ways, and the film simultaneously examines ideas like identity and police ethics without ever turning a didactic sermon. With long conversations between an attractive couple who get thrown together by fate, Hit Man also plays like a thriller version of Linklater’s own Before Sunrise. And I am really depressed at the idea that that all that just got dumped on Netflix and might soon fall into obscurity in the same way that Apollo 10 1/2 did.

To be sure, there are a few advantages to watching Hit Man on Netflix. For one thing, you can rewatch it multiple times at no additional cost, something I am sure people will want to do. At home you also have the option to play Hit Man with subtitles, where you can appreciate the fact that whoever wrote the movie’s captions went to the trouble to delineate whether Powell is playing Gary or “Ron” (his hit man alter ego) in some scenes — and even at one point calls him “Gary/‘Ron’” during a moment when his identity is especially muddled. (Another caption just reads “[smooches]”. These are good captions.)

In pretty much every other way, though, this is not the ideal outcome for Hit Man — or for movie theaters, where I feel like this movie would have done well, assuming it wasn’t simultaneously playing at home for the low price of a monthly Netflix subscription. Powell co-wrote Hit Man with Linklater, and he clearly designed it as a showcase for all his talents. As Gary, Powell is charming, funny, handsome yet likable, and very willing to look silly or vulnerable. In another era, this would have cemented Powell as a major movie star after his recent roles in Top Gun: Maverick and Anyone But You.

But in that other era, Hit Man would have played in theaters, where the sheer size of the film image lends the people on the big screen a mythic, larger-than-life quality. At home … everyone seems smaller, less special, less spectacular — even someone as hunky as Glen Powell. I’m starting to wonder if that’s one reason why, as so many have noted and complained lately, we seem to witnessing the death of traditional movie stardom. On television, stars don’t shine nearly as brightly.

I just hope we’re not witnessing the death of movie theaters, or movies themselves. When one this good comes along, it should be more of an event.

Movies That Should Have Become Franchises But Didn’t

These movies were good enough to get sequels, or whole franchises. But it never happened for a variety of reasons.

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