Instant Gratification: “Any Day Now” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix right now

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Every Tuesday, the Instant Gratification column gives you five recommendations for movies that have recently started streaming on Netflix Instant. Sometimes we go way off the beaten path — sometimes we stay right on it.

Pick of the week: “Any Day Now” — Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt star in this well-acted drama about a gay couple in 1970s Los Angeles who try to adopt a homeless teen with Down’s syndrome, only to encounter a wave of official prejudice. Aside from being a moving film, it’s a testament to how far gay rights have come in America in the last 30 years, and how far we still have to go.

Children’s movie of the week: “Mulan” — Netflix just added several Disney films to the lineup, and the best of them is this rousing adventure from 1997, in which a Chinese girl (Ming-Na Wen) has to save her father’s kingdom. I thought Eddie Murphy as the wisecracking dragon was funnier than Eddie Murphy as the wisecracking donkey in all the Shrek movies.

Documentary of the week: “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” — Werner Herzog recut and narrated this Russian documentary about people living in remote, brutal Siberia, using survival techniques not much different from their ancestors a century before. We’ll take your word for it that they’re happy, Werner.

Blockbuster of the week: “The Avengers” — Joss Whedon delivered an incredibly fun superhero that was greater than the sum of its parts, mixing eye-popping action with humor and a genuine amount of emotion. The actors work as smoothly together as the heroes must, and Tom Hiddleston is a blast as the sinister Loki.

Comedy of the week: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” — Not really a kids’ movie, but they’ll probably like this 1988 spin on classic noir, in which humans and Toons live side by side, and a private eye (Bob Hoskins) gets drawn into both worlds in late ’40s Hollywood.

“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”: Werner and the husky Siberians

Happy People - A Year in the Taiga

“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” Not rated, 1:34, opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Three stars (out of four).

You can tell a lot about a person by who they envy. That filmmaker Werner Herzog would look at the subjects of his new documentary “Happy People” with something approaching jealousy says a lot about the man.

Because, as rough as you think it might be living in Siberia, the reality is even harsher. The film looks at the residents of a small village in the snow-smothered region that’s 1.5 times the size of the United States. In the summer, the landscape is beautiful but inhospitable. In winter, the 300 or so residents are cut off entirely from civilization, and had better hope they’ve properly prepared for the months of isolation and survival.

In many ways, life for these denizens hasn’t changed in the last century. While modern conveniences like snowmobiles and chainsaws are employed, they do many things the way their ancestors did — they build traps the same way, they carve boats and skis out of trees. Dogs are constant — sometimes sole — companions, but they are work animals, not pets. When a snowmobiler makes the long journey from the forest to the village, the dog has to run alongside.

We spend a lot of time with one bearded gentleman, who travels from hut to hut trapping sables for their fur. The windows of the hut are filled not with glass, but heavy plastic — because bears can break glass. In one scene, he arrives late in the day to a hut, only to find it’s been crushed by a falling tree. With not enough time to travel to the next one, he has to quickly repair the hut before the subzero night falls.

This is Herzog’s idea of paradise, apparently. “They are truly free,” he rhapsodizes in his unmistakable accent on the voiceover narration. “No taxes, no governnment, no rules. Equipped only with their own individual values and standards of conduct.” Self-sufficiency is bliss for Herzog, and in a way the Siberians are as preserved in amber for him as the prehistoric artists he mused about in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”

In fact, Herzog is so smitten with his “Happy People” that he didn’t actually shoot the film. The footage comes from a four-hour Russian television series, which he has cut down to a brisk 94-minute travelogue and added his own narration. So, in a very real sense, we are watching Herzog watch this film, his rapturous reaction illuminating as much about himself as his subjects.

“Happy People” is not top-tier Herzog; it doesn’t have a narrative thread or a dramatic arc, content to observe and report. It’s an engrossing ethnographic study, but I have to think that if Herzog was wielding the camera himself, the film would have dug deeper into these people’s lives and why they choose the life they’ve chosen. Also, after 90 minutes in the Taiga, enduring this Wisconsin winter feels like a breeze.

Oscar-nominated shorts kick off next round of Sundance Screening Room

It’s been a long wait, since early October if I recall correctly. The Sundance Cinemas Screening Room schedule, featuring independent, foreign and documentary films showing exempt from the usual amenities fees, has been on a long hiatus to make room for all the big fall and holiday releases.

But it’s back.

The first round of Screening Room films kicks off next Friday, Feb. 8 with screenings of all 15 Oscar-nominated short films. You’ll be able to see the five shorts nominated for live-action in one screening, and the five nominated for Best Animated Short at another, all that week. Plus, just for the weekend of Feb. 8, audiences can see all five films nominated for Best Documentary Short.

After that, we can look forward to new films from Werner Herzog and Abbas Kiarostami, a new documentary on hunger from the producers of “Food Inc,” and Charlie Sheen’s unlikely cinematic comeback. Here’s how the rest of the upcoming Screening Room calendar shakes out, which will bring us up to early April:

The Other Son” (Feb. 15) — Two boys discover they were switched at birth. The kicker? One is Israeli, the other Palestinian in this French drama.

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” (Feb. 22) — The Charlie Sheen National Rehabilitation Project continues in this film from Wes Anderson colleague Roman Coppola, starring Sheen as a graphic designer in crisis alongside Wes faves Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman.

A Place at the Table” (March 1) — A documentary from the producers of “Food, Inc.” about the hunger crisis that lets millions of Americans go underfed, and offers specific solutions to the problem.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” (March 8) — The latest documentary from Werner Herzog looks at a small band of indigenous people living in Siberia whose lives haven’t changed in the last century, and, as the title suggests, are just fine with that.

Barbara” (March 15) — An East German doctor hoping to flee the country in the 1980s is banished to a small rural hospital in this acclaimed drama.

Any Day Now” (March 22) — A gay couple (Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt) fight the legal system to keep custody of a mentally-challenged teenager who they have taken in off the streets.

Like Someone in Love‘ (March 29) — The latest film from master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (“Certified Copy”) looks at the relationship between an old man and a young woman in Japan.