Netflix’s Best Original Movies: September 2021 Edition

Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci in Worth.
Photo: Netflix

Probably the finest film released to Netflix this year so far hit the service this month. Worth, a talky legal piece with a prestigious pedigree in stars Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci, signals the kind of polished, starry project (and the uptick in quality) we can expect in greater quantities as the year rolls on into awards season. Before that, however, this month has yielded another eclectic handful of streaming selections, including an orphaned niece of John Wick, a comfort-food romance in from Sweden, and a German survival thriller with a couple of loops to throw. Read on for the full lowdown on the latest original films added to Netflix’s vast library, and brace yourself for the beginning of its most active season:

Director Sara Colangelo (of Netflix’s similarly strong The Kindergarten Teacher remake) and screenwriter Max Borenstein tackle the question of what a human life is worth head-on with this drama, but not in the chin-stroking philosophical sense. As the special master of the Victim Compensation Fund for those who lost family in 9/11, lawyer Kenneth Feinberg (Keaton, dusting off his chowdah-headed accent and sense of professional dedication from Spotlight) must literally determine the monetary sum each recipient is owed, condensing their unimaginable mourning into a dollar number. At first, he approaches this vulgar work using the objective, clinical detachment of an algorithmic formula, but spending time with the clients (like the erudite, furious widower, played by Tucci) provokes a change of heart. What could have been goopy holds together due to its wealth of engrossing procedural nitty-gritty and a deft emphasis on the myriad forms grief can take.

Much in the same way this featherlight comedy tries to pass off Cape Town, South Africa, as sunny San Diego, so too does it attempt in vain to convince us that stilted Disney Channel alumna Victoria Justice is a leading actress capable of carrying a star vehicle like this one. Speaking every line as if it’s a catchphrase, she plays good-time gal Cassie, her hard-living ways estranging her from her homebody bestie, Lisa (Midori Francis) — until Cassie cracks her skull open on a toilet bowl and ascends to purgatory, where she’ll have to do some angelic good deeds for those on earth before she’s allowed into Heaven, the sickest party of all. That mostly entails nudging Lisa to come out of her shell enough to bang her gratuitously hunky neighbor (Timothy Renouf), as noble an endeavor as any. But Justice’s inability to animate her own words — combined with dialogue that sounds like a series of disjointed GIFs — drains any fun to be had with their high jinks.

The illegitimate spawn of John Wick keep multiplying, this one a deformed twin of Netflix’s own Gunpowder Milkshake. As in the film released way back two months ago, we join a ruthless female assassin (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, comporting herself as well as could be expected) as she and the relatively defenseless young girl (Miku Martineau) in her care blaze a path of corpses through the crime syndicate looking to make mincemeat of them both. This time around, that would be the yakuza, its presence typical of the superficial set-dressing engagement with the Tokyo location. A few imaginative action setpieces, a close-quarters car chase best among them, can’t make up for the numbing familiarity and the played-out sense of cool unable to pull off the cigarette and sunglasses given to Kate. She never really earns her own mononym.

It doesn’t take much dissection to figure out the attraction between Elisabeth (Elsa Öhrn) and John John (Mustapha Aarab), the latest iteration of the eons-old rich girl–poor boy coupling. He’s rakishly handsome, he shows her a side of Stockholm more genuine than her enclave of privilege, he’s just a little bit dangerous, and, best of all, her dad hates him; she’s classy, represents a better life than his subsistence on the proceeds from petty crime, and she sees him for the gentle soul he really is. Their hearts entwine during classes at the theater school they both attend, like a Save the Last Dance with an even greater emphasis on how their passions bleed into and out of their work. Theirs is a credible if ordinary romance, even if the dialogue articulating it pales in comparison to the nonverbal connection the actors share with one another. Third-act issues aside, it’s a respectable date-night selection.

This German-produced cartoon adventure was released as Dragon Rider in the U.K., though the most honest title would probably be Ways to Educate Your Dragon or just Not How to Train Your Dragon. The pairing of a magnificent winged reptile with a scruffy young misfit boy certainly evokes DreamWorks’ blockbusting success, and the identical animation style stymies any plausible deniability. But this one gives the dragon in question a voice (that of Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and makes him the main character, with his rider, Ben (Freddie Highmore), and their feline-imp companion, Sorrell (Felicity Jones), relegated to sidekick duty. Their quest to vanquish a meanie metal dragon (Patrick Stewart, audibly enjoying himself) has little to recommend it, between Jones’s lack of expression in her vocals, shoddy computerized designs, and the absence of anything in the neighborhood of humor — the key ingredient engaging kids’ wandering attentions and keeping parents sane.

Five dudes venture out into the German woods as a last hurrah before one of their rank ties the knot, only to realize they’re being picked off one at a time by an unseen hunter. Netflix’s The Decline proved that a pretty good movie can be made out of that minimalist setup alone, but writer-director Thomas Sieben mucks up a winning simplicity by overpacking backstory in this thriller. As all hikers know, the last thing you want on the trail is needless bulk weighing you down; between the clumsy flashbacks explaining who’s hunting the men and why, as well as the clumsy flashbacks meant to stick a rift between the guys for added drama, there are too many intermissions in what should have been a brisk cat-and-mouse game. The sequences of bullets flying out of nowhere terrify as they should, so everything getting in the way of that just plays as tiresome.

As a movie in the style of a Brothers Grimm scary story, about a junior raconteur (Winslow Fegley) obsessed with these stories who then fills the run time with stories-within-a-story in this exact tradition — right down to an interlude in the “Hansel and Gretel” Memorial Forest — one would presume a stronger command of what has made those old yarns into classics. Namely, simplicity and concision; there’s so much gobbledygook detailing the logistics of magic crammed into what should just be a fable about two imprisoned kids (Lidya Jewett) trying to Scheherazade their way out of the apartment owned by an unusually fetching witch (Krysten Ritter). More irksome still, a celebration of imagination and individualism overreaches and lands on the flawed moral of “You’re better than all those boring normals” that’s seeded so much narcissism among creative types through the years.